Les Enfants du Paradis has a storied reputation. Cinephiles might know it as the film where Gerard Blain got his start. But other film lovers have known it through multiple theatrical restorations. The Criterion Channel has it under its Essential Art House section. The three-hour running time might intimidate viewers who might lack the energy – some of them including yours truly. But once it sticks, the experience is quite emotional.
All the excitement in this film comes from its central character, a fictional version of Frederick LeMaitre (Pierre Brasseur). During the July Monarchy era, Frederick is trying to hustle himself into the marquee of a second-rate Parisian theatre. More specifically, it’s the kind of theatre that doesn’t allow its actors to say lines, which goes against Frederick’s Shakespearian ambitions. The film makes its viewers feel what he’s up against.
“Paris is small for those who share so great a passion as ours”. These are words that Frederick hears from a woman who ends up being his co-star and lover, Garance (Arletty). A man meeting a woman in Paris is simple enough of a premise but looks deceive. It turns out that Garance ends up catching the eye of another actor, Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a hopeless romantic and an idealist.
All of this takes place during the first part, which the film calls Boulevard du Crime. And it gets that title from the third man trying to get Garance’s romantic attention – Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). Lacenaire is a playwright slash criminal – the best two careers a fictional character can have. His second career gets Garance intro trouble, and the film hinges on her survival as much as it does Frederick’s.
There are many who love this film and regard it as one of the best ones France has ever made. There are many others that deserve that title, but it’s totally understandable that some consider this to be a contender. Its greatest quality is its set of characters, resilient and rebellious. These are qualities that made France survive both during the 1830s and a century later when Marcel Carne made the film.
What’s more interesting here the contrast between these tough characters and the opulent city where they live. Experiencing both the city and a few of its fictional citizens between one end of the 1830s to another also works wonders. These characters find themselves in the arms of different lovers but they still think of their old flames. Their problems and big and small, and their heartbreaks still haunt viewers.