Often described as the greatest French film of all time, this legendary epic is where cinema and poetry truly merge into one.
Directed by Marcel Carné and written by the famous poet Jacques Prévert, Les Enfants du Paradis was made during World War II, in spite of the restrictions imposed by the Vichy regime, and premiered in Paris in 1945, a few months after the Libération.
The film had a huge impact on France because it was so big and they had somehow managed to make it during the war, so it became a symbol of invincible French culture.
But its popularity didn’t last because the young critics and directors of the 1960s, including François Truffaut, dismissed the highly stylised movie as obsolete; although, later in his career, Truffaut famously recanted his critique, saying he would gladly swap all of his films for the chance to have made Les Enfants du Paradis.
The title refers to the people who occupy the highest balconies (and cheapest seats) in the theatres of Paris, i.e. those spectators whose love of theatre is inversely proportional to their ability to pay for it.
Based on true characters, the film belongs to the genre known as poetic realism, depicting the reality of everyday life through heightened poetic expression.
The term “poetic realism” sounds like an oxymoron because poetry is very much the opposite of realism. But the genre manages to join the two approaches by using realistic narrative continuity while breaking it up with highly poetic interludes.
Poetic realist films are characterised by untrained voices, minor-key melodies and a scorn for happy endings. The equivalent in the popular music of the time was the style called chanson réaliste, made famous by Édith Piaf.
The Vichy regime forbade any direct reference to the war, so the setting is Paris in the 1830s and the script resorts to coded meanings.
Early in the film, for example, the sophisticated courtesan at the centre of the story, Garance, is accused of stealing a rich man’s watch. She is soon released thanks to the amusing testimony of Baptiste, a mime artist. When the policeman tells her she’s free to go, the femme fatale replies:
Tant mieux, parce que j’adore la liberté (Just as well, because I love freedom).
Although centred on Garance, Children of Paradise is just as much about the four men who love her and who, for different reasons, cannot have her: Baptiste (the mime), a Shakespearean star, a charming criminal, and finally an aristocrat – to whom she says in all honesty:
You’re rich, but you want to be loved as if you’re poor.
Ultimately, Les Enfants du Paradis is a tale of romantic torment – the doomed, impossible love between Garance and Baptiste being the film’s most moving theme, and Baptiste’s sad, white face its most indelible, stirring image.