Labelled the French Gone with the Wind (1939) when it was first released amid the victory celebrations of post World War II France, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) is a wonderful and rarely-seen slice of 1940s art cinema, and this newly-restored version is a treat for old fans and willing converts. The film has been lovingly restored and is set to screen at this year’s 55th BFI London Film Festival.
Divided into two parts – Boulevard du Crime (Boulevard of Crime) and L’Homme Blanc (The Man in White) – Les Enfants du Paradis is set in the theatrical world of early-19th century Paris during the liberal constitutional monarchy of King Louis Philippe. The film centres around Parisian courtesan Garance (Arletty) and the four men in love with her – an aristocrat, a thief, an actor and a mime – who are all based upon real, larger-than-life French personalties of the 1820s and 30s.
Director Carné collaborated with surrealist poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert for Les Enfants, and if ever a film could be regarded as a visual poem it is this. The beautiful, haunting score of composer Joseph Kosma perfectly matches to Carnés dreamy magical vision of Paris.
Even if the film had been made during peace time, it would still have been a remarkable achievement, but when you consider the difficulties Carné had during production it’s amazing he manged to deliver any picture at all, let alone one as special as Les Enfants. Causes for the shoots delay included the cinematic restrictions of the Vichy administration, a member of the cast being outed as a Nazi spy and the allied landings in Normandy, not to mention an escalating budget which at that point in time made it the most expensive French film ever made.
At a running time of 190 minutes a seat cushion is definitely advised, and if you’re looking for pace and action you’re not going to find it here. Carné is in no hurry to tell his story so do be prepared for the long haul, but if you stick with Les Enfants du Paradis you should almost certainly leave the theatre spent and satisfied.
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