The screenwriter of “Enfants du paradis,” poet Jacques Prévert, claimed that cinema and poetry were the same thing. After last night’s Oscar ceremony, that may seem hard to believe. Movie writing nowadays is more like advertising: simple, clear messages designed to elicit a particular response in audiences too impatient for nuances. Poetry it’s not.
But Prévert was onto something. On the surface, “Enfants du paradis” is a costume drama, exquisitely detailed in its rendering of French society during the restored monarchy of Charles X and Louis-Philippe. This was the period when France attempted to put the upheavals of the Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic era behind. Order and stability were regained, by force if necessary; the main action of Les Misérables takes place during this period as well.
In the upper balcony of the theater, the “paradise” level (so named because it is high up, close to heaven), the lower classes watch the performances with childlike pleasure. How charming, this faithful recreation of a world when everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy! Petty thieves bring a soupçon of danger to the idyllic scene. We glimpse the low-life in a seedy bar and are introduced to one genuine criminal. But all of this is just a backdrop for the real story, which centers around the loves and betrayals of a courtesan, Garance.
Here’s where poetry enters the film. Garance plays with men, allowing herself to be kept by an aristocrat while flirting with the criminal, encouraging the attentions of a famous actor while rejecting the earnest mime who truly loves her. All of the acting is superb. And to think, Marcel Carné made “Enfants du paradis” during the German Occupation, in the midst of wartime shortages and power failures and the rounding-up of Jews and other foreign or dangerous elements — not that you’d know it, of course.
“A cathedral erected to the glory of French art during France’s darkest hour.” That’s how French critics regard this film. No less a luminary than François Truffaut said, “I made twenty-three films but would give them all up for this one.” That’s quite some tribute.
French scholar Jeffrey Mehlman takes a different view. “Murderous nostalgia” is his term for such productions, which partook of the Vichy regime’s yearning to turn back the clock, its effort to restore France to herself.
And yet, the image of France that “Enfants du paradis” presents is morally complex. We empathize with Garance, even when she is cruel and fickle. Arletty, the actress who plays her, was the mistress of a German Luftwaffe officer during the war, a betrayal for which she was tried and imprisoned during the purges. Not long after her death in 1992, the French government issued a 100 franc coin with her face on it.
If the beauty of poetry lies not only in its artistry, but also in its ambiguity, “Enfants du paradis” is the poetic film par excellence.