Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) (1945)
It’s not often that a cinematic production is as intriguing on-screen as off, but the acclaimed period film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) by director Marcel Carné is that rare breed. The film attempts to recreate the atmosphere of France’s early-nineteenth-century theater industry. Set in Paris, on the notorious “Boulevard du Crime”, the feature explores the obsessions and jealousies of four men whose object of love, the actress/courtesan Garance, manages to elude them all in the end. Conditions during the making of the film were equally dramatic, highlighting the gritty realism behind the tale of performance and fantasy. The German occupation of France meant that those behind the camera were the object of surveillance as well. Time limits were placed on the length of the movie so that producers finally decided to split it into two segments. Jewish members of the crew had to work in anonymity while members of the Resistance used the production to hide their liberation efforts. As a marker of the scarcity of the times, shortages of food meant rationing for the crew, who sometimes stole food and ran away.
Most of the action takes place around the Funambules pantomime theater, where the actor Baptiste performs nightly to a bawdy audience unappreciative of his refined talents. Other colorful characters also vying for Garance are the irredeemable thief Lacenaire, Baptiste’s more successful (although less gifted) fellow actor Frederick, and the oh-so-very-frigid Count Eduard. When Garance takes the fall for a theft committed by Lacenaire, Baptiste mimes the truth as he’s seen it, expressing his feelings for the courtesan in the only way he can. She ultimately seeks the protection of the Count although she despises him.
By popular and critical accounts, the movie created a sensation. Rather than merely producing a film about the stage, Carné incorporated the formal elements of theater technically and symbolically into Les Enfants. Each of the film’s two segments begins with a curtain rising. Most scenes were filmed in the studio, with painted backdrops and manufactured sets rather than natural settings. And the symbol most central to the stage – the curtain – reappears in the film’s climax when Lacenaire, at a dinner party, pulls a curtain back to reveal Baptiste and Garance in each other’s arms, humiliating Count Eduard.
The film is most alive when it shakes up social roles, pitting the silence of the Funambules pantomimes against the boisterous spectators, the penniless masses in cheap seats who assume, for us, an unexpected power. Referred to as “the gods”, the viewers – like Romans watching their gladiators – reign in the gallery seats, heckling the actors below and exerting their control over the show. When an actress inadvertently screams, “Baptiste!” during a scene, the director admonishes, then fines, her for the violation. The power of utterance, and of ideas, is denied to those who can act. Even while the Funambules places unique constraints on every individual within its walls, each also retains a particular agency. For the audience, as gods, it is ultimately the right to judge. Whenever a mime acted contrary to the spectators’ desires, the gallery gods protested loudly and showered the stage with food, redirecting and correcting the pantomimes at will, and, in the process, entering the performance.
Decidedly theatrical in form, Les Enfants seems to mediate, like a stage, between the performers and the audience. Typically, movie storylines and filming techniques try to bring the viewer into an insider’s perspective of the characters. In this case, however, the feature film’s artificial settings as well as its technical and symbolic gestures toward the stage create a gulf between the artist and the viewer, mimicking performative theater. As the second World War raged in the background, and the content of Les Enfants centered around the stage, the implication may be that, just as in the case of Funambules, it is high time for the spectators, read the public, to recognize that there is a significant barrier between watching and collaborating, to reach across the distance, and to act, choosing to participate rather than passively merging into a stale plotline as a viewer. At some point in the life of a work of art, audience interest and taste must intervene, even protest, in order to complete the artistic cycle. By supporting the artist with honest and even critical commentary, the public nourishes the creative process.
Affiche Rouge, "Des Libérateurs?" (A propaganda poster to discredit the French resistance during World War II)
Flickr user Berto Garcia via the Musée de l'Armée, Paris, France
Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, "Boulevard du Temple"
Artist's own via Tumblr user slowdown-quentin
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Posted on April 20, 2012