The history of Children of Paradise, considered to be one of the (if not the) greatest French Films of all time, is a fascinating one. Created entirely through the occupation and liberation during World War II, it is almost a miracle that the piece was made considering the conditions the filmmakers and writers were experiencing. This included everything from the geographic, to the political, to the interpersonal, and even the heroic as many of the contributors were Jewish and needed to work on the film in hiding.
The story is about three men – all historically real people presented in the frame of historical fiction – pursuing the aloof and complicated performer Garance. But that is the simple core story that runs throughout the over three-hour-long narrative, combining hundreds of characters, lavish settings, performances-within-performances, drama, intrigue, comedy, politics, and the overall sprawling identity of the city with all of its minute details and colorful people. The most amazing part of the film is that it is one of those pieces that doesn’t feel like it is over three hours long, and as I switched to the next DVD (the Criterion DVD release I watched spanned two discs), I was surprised that I had to swap it out but also that I had been watching for as long as I had. It is a beautiful film that represents the French poetic realist style as “a defiant affirmation of French theatrical culture at a time when the nation was conquered and occupied…offer(ing) a multilayered meditation on the nature of masquerade, fantasy, and representation” (Kemp). It is as much an amazing story and beautiful film as it is a historical document. A pleasure to watch, it captures love and the realities of theatrical life in a splendid, funny, romantic, terrible, pessimistic, and heroic work of art. This film shows to what lengths art and expression is both literally and figuratively a giant middle finger to authoritarianism.
I loved this film from beginning to end. From the opening scene, the audience is treated to a fully-immersive experience. The city, its inhabitants, and the narrative of the impossibility of understanding how we all fit into the seemingly random setting of living in a city with thousands (literally – some frames of this film show a 1/4 mile set filled with 1,500 extras) of individuals all struggling to fit in.
My favorite part of this piece was easily the line it straddled between telling the story it set out to tell along with the subversive message hiding in its truth about community, existence, passion, and the transcendence offered by art and love. Furthermore, I can hardly think of another film that captures the culture and family of the theater as well as The Children Of Paradise does. A truly wonderful, perfect film.
I watched Children of Paradise on Criterion DVD #141.