- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

Given the enduring (and once thriving) connections between the theater and the movies, there should probably be a more plentiful collection of backstage classics. I’m not aware of rivals to “All About Eve” or “The Producers” when it comes to modern-dress melodramas or farces, respectively, about theatrical scheming and swindling.

There was a welcome resurgence of the Shakespearean film in recent years, triggered by the prestige and popularity of Kenneth Branagh’s remake of “Henry V.” The cycle he inspired at the end of the 1980s did culminate in a new romantic classic about the theater world, “Shakespeare in Love.” The Academy Award-winning picture of 1998, it was the most rapturous and satisfying costume movie about actors and their milieu since “Children of Paradise” over half a century earlier.

The French film academy took the opportunity to proclaim “Children of Paradise” the greatest French-language production of the talking period in the early 1990s, while its director, Marcel Carne (1909-1996) was still alive. A masterfully lavish and equivocal achievement of the Occupation period, “Les Enfants du paradis” is an expansive and multifaceted portrayal of tangled romantic longings, liaisons and estrangements in the Parisian theater world of the 1820s and 1830s. While evoking the period impressively, it also reflects the tensions and compromises of its own ominous and treacherous World War II time frame.

Four men of sharply contrasting personalities and outlooks are passionately drawn to a part-time actress and opportunistic courtesan called Garance. This ultimately elusive object of desire is played by an actress known professionally as Arletty (born Leonie Bathiat almost 110 years ago). When “Children of Paradise” — an allusion to both actors and their poorest but most ardent fans, seated in the upper balconies — began shooting in the summer of 1943, Arletty was obliged to finesse a middle-aged turning point that is often considered a terminal barrier for actresses.

Although a persuasively knowing and alluring presence in many scenes, Arletty strikes an incongruously maternal note opposite Jean-Louis Barrault as her designated soul mate, the gifted and dreamy mime Baptiste Debureau. In 1943 he was a boyish 33 and she a handsome 45. Frequently, his presence is so elfin or childlike that Garance could be plausibly accused of trifling with the cradle, if not quite robbing it.

Arletty always makes more sense as a consort to Pierre Brasseur’s consummate ham and aspiring Shakespearean, the actor Frederick Lemaitre; to Marcel Herrand as the cutthroat Lacenaire, who insists that carnal desire is beneath him; and to Louis Salou as an elegantly seething nobleman, perversely earmarked for homicide at the hands of Lacenaire in a Turkish bath.

A certain stumbling block haunts the Arletty-Barrault match-up — not that it’s difficult to accept Arletty as an embodiment of feminine adventurism, wisdom and resignation or Mr. Barrault as an extraordinary pantomime artist on stage and a naive, blundering suitor offstage. But the love scenes between Baptiste and Garance demand generous benefits of the doubt, as the partners look rather preposterous together, despite the imaginative powers of director Mr. Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert, or the sincerity of the actors. It’s here that “Shakespeare in Love” outsmarts “Children of Paradise.” Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes were more believable as lovers, physical and spiritual.

The wit and erudition of Mr. Prevert elevated the verbal powers of several characters in “Children of Paradise,” most notably the silver-tongued Lemaitre, understandably frustrated when he’s a member of the Debureau mime company and can’t speak out loud. (At the time, dialogue would have been a legal infraction for this troupe.) As a lover he more or less talks himself out of Garance’s good graces. Nevertheless, he’s probably the most enduring crowd-pleaser in the show, particularly when making a comic spectacle of the melodramatic starring vehicle, “The Brigands’ Inn,” that he refuses to play straight.

There are repeated interludes in which a performance is undermined, inadvertently or deliberately. Theatrical flourishes and tendencies intrude on “real” life to such an extent that stage and reality are regarded as fundamentally the same: overripe settings for human folly and passion, flexible enough to accommodate a continuum from silence to grandiloquence or low comedy to bloodcurdling tragedy.

The movie concludes amid a carnival throng where the principal characters are last seen (or lost sight of) while pursuing desperate errands, going separate ways and eating their hearts out. This juxtaposition of public jubilation and private unhappiness remains strangely and uniquely exhilarating.

TITLE: “Children of Paradise” (“Les Enfants du paradis”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (originally released in 1945, decades before the advent of the film rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor and non-graphic depictions of violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Marcel Carne. Written by Jacques Prevert. Cinematography by Roger Hubert. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 195 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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