Something struck me as I watched Children of Paradise Saturday at the Castro. The main characters are, at heart, all extraordinarily selfish. Even when expressing deep and undying love, they’re thinking only of their own needs and desires. They want to own the object of their adoration, but they don’t see that object as a human being with desires of his or her own. No wonder there are no happy endings here.
Perhaps that’s why I so pity the two most love-struck characters in the story, Baptiste and Nathalie, but I can’t bring myself to like them very much. They’re doomed by their intense, melodramatic, but ultimately unattainable loves–even when they appear to, perhaps briefly, attain them..
Yet I adore two other major characters: Garance and Frédérick. For them, love is simple pleasure. They’re almost as selfish as Baptiste and Nathalie, but they, at least, are honest about their desires. Garance and Frédérick are merely hedonists, while the seemingly serious and romantic Baptiste and Nathalie have sunk into narcissism.
And yet no character in this large cast earns more affection for me than Avril, the criminal sidekick (and possibly murderer) with the innocence and demeanor of a child. Avril has no ambitions or desires. He does what he’s told, even when he’s reluctant to do so. His eyes are soulful, and he almost always carries a small flower–sometimes by hand, or in his teeth, or behind his ear. How can you hate a man like that?
Avril takes those orders from Lacenaire, who comes as close as anyone to being Children’s villain–a well-educated dandy with a deep distain for almost everyone, he steals for a living and dreams of committing a grand murder. Like Baptiste and Frédérick, he’s a planet orbiting Garance–the gravitational center of the film’s solar system. But while Baptiste needs Garance to be his true love, and Frédérick merely wants to sleep with her, Lacenaire’s desires are less clear. He’s fascinated by Garance, and she’s fascinated with him, but there’s nothing sexual between them. Perhaps Lacenaire is gay–or asexual.
Garance acquires another male admirer before the film is through–the Count Eduard of Monteray. He wants to own Garance and make her his mistress. He’s rich and powerful, and used to getting whatever he wants. But I’m not sure if he desires Garance for sex, for status, or for an excuse to kill other men honorably in duels. (Eduard is more evil than Lacenaire, but there’s too little of him onscreen to call him the villain.)
And all of this is set in the theater world of 19th century Paris. Baptiste, a mime, grows as an artist as unrequited love burns a hole in his heart. His staged mime routines are amongst some of the film’s best moments–funny, touching, and sad. Baptiste and Frédérick are both historical figures. Jean-Baptiste Debureau was one of the greatest mimes of all time. Frédérick Lemaître was his era’s great dramatic actor. (Lacenaire and Avril are also historical figures. The other characters are, as far as I know, fictitious.)
The large sets, filled with extras, and captured with Roger Hubert’s atmospheric cinematography, bring the audience back to a teeming, lively, and romanticized time and place. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another black-and-white sound film that works so well as period spectacle. The high production values are all the more impressive when you remember that Children of Paradise was shot during the last months of the Nazi occupation.
Which brings me to Pathe’s new restoration. It’s gorgeous, from the sharp, fine detail of the crowd scenes to the smoky insides of the theaters–so brilliantly lit by Hubert to give the impression of gas lighting. Wisely, Pathe did not attempt to sharpen scenes that were never meant to look sharp. A handful of shots fail to look as good as they should, probably because they were restored from inferior sources.
The Castro screened Children of Paradise digitally in DCP. I know that many will object, but I don’t. 35mm film couldn’t have looked better.
September 10, 2012: After watching the film again on Blu-ray, I have made a few changes to this article.