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Children of Paradise (Michael Carne) 1945 

    Set amid the swirling frenzy of the French theater world, Michael Carne’s epic length romance Children of Paradise is generally considered one of the greatest films of all time. It’s easy to see why its mix of realism and poetic beauty are so highly treasured. The film manages to pay its greatest tributes to the arts simply by demonstrating how their splendor has the ability to transport the masses into another world. Throughout the film we see several show-stopping performances and each of them is really something special. The storyline follows the actors that give these great performances, so during the backstage scenes, we feel as if we’re in on some secret, since we’ve been wowed by the artifice of the show. When originally released in the United States back in the 40’s, almost an hour of footage was missing from the film, so it’s no wonder that the movie lacks the towering reputation here that it has attained in its home country, where it was awarded the “Cesar of Cesars” back in the 70’s, officially establishing it as the best French film ever.    


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    I personally wouldn’t use such superlatives to describe Children of Paradise, but it’s one of the few French (or non-French) epics to combine a populist (melo?)dramatic span with an intimate and intellectual examination of greater themes. The movie looks at life compared to art, and finds both lacking, yet both somehow fulfilling. The plot is a somewhat convoluted love hexagon, all revolving around a rather haughty and carefree woman who might have a bit too much joie de vie for her own good. Most of the characters in this film are well drawn, and all of them are certainly distinctive. There’s a great deal of joy in watching their triumphs and an equal amount of heartbreak when disappointment crops up. Since there are several protagonists vying for the hand of the heroine, the film never feels like a simplistic cat and mouse game between right and wrong. A wide variety of personalities emerge here, few of them clichéd. Carne’s backstage backdrop has clearly set the standard for most theater-bound films, and its influences can still be seen in the milieus of such modern movies as Shakespeare in Love or Moulin Rouge.    

    The movie is an aesthetic triumph (the stunning restoration available on the Criterion DVD of the film does it true justice) and moves at an admirable pace for a film of such a protracted length. Divided into two halves which are set time periods a few years apart from one another, the movie achieves a good deal of epic scope even if it rarely leaves its wondrous yet ramshackle theater district. The film was apparently made covertly during France’s WWII occupation (this is one of the main reasons for its division into parts – the Nazis would allow no film longer than 90 minutes to be filmed), and there is an almost unspoken threat early on in the movie that the graces that keep the doors of the theater open are tenuous at best. The struggle of art against a world that doesn’t quite appreciate it seems to power a lot of the first half’s dramatic thrust, and when that dissipates in the film’s remainder, things suffer a bit. We no longer feel that we’re discovering something brilliant but unnoticed here, and while the successes and more conventional romances that fill the void are entertaining, they lack the attractive suffering that powered the first half of the film. Thankfully, then, the film’s ending does not cheat on us. In a scene that makes “The Man in White”, the title of the second segment of the film, heartbreakingly literal we understand a profound collapse of hope while understanding that any loss sustained will likely power greater artistic success. The Children of Paradise which both delicately and boldly expresses such towering concepts as love, loss, life, and art seems the product of one who has lived through such highs and lows. 



Jeremy Heilman