Blu-ray Review: Children of Paradise

The one great black and white sound epic, Marcel Carné’s and Jacques Prévert’s love letter to France and to the theater, draws you in like a miracle. And why not? The movie’s very existence is a miracle. How could they shoot a grand story on such a lavish scale during the last months of the Nazi occupation, when finding enough food was a major challenge?

How bad was it? Production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Maurice Thiriet did their work while hiding from the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. One of the supporting actors was a collaborator and had to flee from the resistance; his part was reshot. By the time the film was released in March of 1945, Paris was liberated, and the “clandestine” contributors were properly credited. But the star, Arletty, could not attend the premiere; she was under house arrest for the crime of sleeping with a German officer.

I wrote extensively about Children of Paradise in March, so rather than repeating myself, I’ll just point you to the earlier article, and go on with a discussion of the Blu-ray itself.

First Impression

children_of_paradise_boxFrom the outside, the two-disc set comes in a standard Criterion box. The cover is a reproduction of one of Trauner’s pre-production paintings.

When you open the box, you’ll find both discs on the same side, one stacked offset over the other. I don’t know if this type of configuration endangers the discs, but I always fear that I will damage them when I remove one.

The first disc contains the full, three-hour, two-part movie (the older DVD version put each section of the film on a separate disc). It’s only extra is the commentary. The second disc (also a Blu-ray) contains the other supplements.

The package also contains a 40-page booklet, with an essay by Dudley Andrews and an interview with director Carné made in 1990.

How it Looks

Thanks to Pathé’s new restoration, Children of Paradise probably looks better than it ever has before. It certainly looks better than it has in decades. It’s not razor-sharp with fine detail, but it never was. This is a romantic look at a past century, with much of it slightly soft focus by choice. Pathé was right not to over-sharpen it.

This new restoration allows you to really appreciate cinematographer Roger Hubert’s realistic yet stylized lighting scheme, especially in the scenes set on theatrical stages. This is as close as you’ll ever come to a gas-lit, early 19th century theater.

Criterion did a fine job converting Pathé’s restoration to the Blu-ray format (assuming that there was much work to be done). This is easily the best Children of Paradise you’re likely to ever see at home, and very close to what you’d see today in a theater. I suspect it looks better than any theatrical presentation you saw before this year.

How it Sounds

As is Criterion’s Blu-ray policy with mono titles, Children of Paradise’s soundtrack is presented in uncompressed PCM. There are a few instances where the opulent, symphonic music strains with distortion, but that’s a reflection on the limitations of the original recording.

And the Extras: Disc 1:

  • Bookmarks: As is standard for Criterion, the Children of Paradise Blu-ray has a timeline. You can insert bookmarks anywhere in the movie and return to them later on.
  • Commentary: (Or perhaps I should say commentaries.) The first part of the film has a commentary by Brian Stonehill; the second by Charles Affron. Stonehill covers a lot of ground, discussing, for instance, script notes about the characters and Picasso’s influence on the film’s design. Affron’s covers similar ground and isn’t as interesting.

    And the Extras: Disc 2

  • Terry Gilliam Introduction: 5 minutes. Shouldn’t an introduction to the film go on the same disc as the movie? Either way, it’s not all that interesting.
  • Restoration Demonstration: 4 minutes. The difference between the original camera negative and the 4K restoration is just amazing. Scratches, tears, custom stamps, and mold disappear to reveal the beautiful shades of gray in between. I know some people will insist that the negative was more “authentic;” I don’t buy it.
  • US Trailer: 3 minutes. Funny how a timeless masterpiece never gets old, but its trailer sure does.
  • Once Upon a Time: “Children of Paradise”: 51 minutes. 2009 documentary by Julie Bonan about its making and impact. Very little on impact, actually. It’s not exceptional as such documentaries go, except when dealing with the occupation issues. But definitely worth checking out.
  • The Look of Children of Paradise: 22 minutes. Fascinating visual essay on the design. Very interesting discussion of the men (all men) most important in the film’s visual style. Much of it concerns Alexandre Trauner, the Jewish production designer who worked in hiding and was not able to visit the set.
  • The Birth of “Children of Paradise”: 63 minutes. A 1967 German TV documentary made up mostly of interviews with the picture’s creators, and with some then-young French filmmakers. Kind of strange, because the interviews are in French, verbally translated by the narrator into German, which is subtitled in English. The best moment has Claude Lelouch talking about why Children of Paradise, almost by default, is old-fashioned and no longer worthwhile. I hope that, now that he’s older and presumably wiser, he can laugh at what he said.

Children of Paradise is one of the great films; one that you can return to again and again. I’m glad that Pathé gave it the restoration it deserved. And I’m just as glad that I have such an excellent reproduction of that restoration in my home collection.

The Blu-ray goes on sale on Tuesday.