Monday, May 14, 2018

Truth in a Precarious Circle

Pride, humility, amorality, and morality--all are thwarted by an enchanting woman in the great 1945 film Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). A film with the scale of a Balzac novel that establishes its world through a network of distinctive characters, it also boasts extraordinary production values meant to rival Gone with the Wind--and somehow the whole thing was made in Nazi occupied France.

After a sweeping introduction to the "Boulevard of Crime", densely populated with street performers, regular people, one very significant ragman, and presumably criminals, we zero in one woman a barker identifies as "Truth". Anyone who pays the price can see her in the nude in her tent where she sits in a barrel of water gazing in a hand mirror.

This is Garance, played by Arletty, a famous French actress who was later convicted of treason for her affair with a German officer (the sentence was 18 months confined to her ch√Ęteau). Over the course of the film, we see Garance exhibits a similar, if not greater, lack of restraint in the men she chooses to have affairs with. But the film focuses primarily on four men who fall for her; the cool criminal, Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the great actor, Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), the Comte Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), and, perhaps the one man to truly capture Garance's heart, the mime, Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault).

A great mime in real life who went on to star brilliantly in Renoir's adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Barrault plays Baptiste with great skill, his performances funny and yet oddly graceful in his voluminous white pierrot costume.

Each of the men is about performance or artifice in some way. When the Comte demands Lacenaire's name, the criminal, who's gone by so many names that giving one would be almost meaningless now, replies, "Is it not absurd to ask people who they are? . . . They give you the easy reply: a name, a title. But who they are really, who they are deep down, they conceal with great care."

Lamaitre, when he realises he's genuinely jealous of the man Garance has affection for, is so peculiarly pragmatic about his feelings that his main reaction is pleasure that now he can finally understand Othello. The scene is promptly followed by Lemaitre starring in the great play by Shakespeare.

Wikipedia informs me the "Paradis" of the title in French is understood to refer to the gallery seats in a theatre, the people performers are working to please. So it makes sense that everyone in the film is caught in continuous loops of unrequited love. In a particularly cruel mismatch, Baptiste is in love with Garance while Nathalie (Maria Casares), an actress, is in love with Baptiste. Baptiste tries to console Nathalie because he knows how she feels but no amount of empathy is sufficient to respond to the fundamental need. Nothing stops this wheel from moving.

But while I watched the film I was considering "Paradise" in an economic sense and it did seem to me that the people I was watching could afford their dramas because of the world that supported them. Even the thief seemed to be one more in the interest of amusing sport than out of need--Garance likes to visit him, she says, because he likes to talk and she can relax and watch (again, a kind of performance). He delights in describing his amoral philosophy. But there are people on the fringes of the action, like a beggar who pretends to be blind that Baptiste befriends, or the ragman from the beginning, that suggests another world existing in the same time and place. In the case of the ragman, possibly waiting to tear the other world down--in one remarkable scene, he storms the stage to attack an actor dressed as a ragman like himself.

So it's perhaps fitting that Baptiste initially can't give in to his ardour when Garance reveals to him how casual she is about sex, a decision that haunts him for the rest of the film. He's protected by his morality no more than Lacenaire is by his amorality or the Comte is by his position and wealth.

The opulent production design and costumes are complimented by beautiful cinematography by Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert. The film's visuals have a lush, fantastic quality that emphasises a sense of mythic tragedy in the story.

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