Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Renoir, Maria Casares, Louis Salou
Director:  Marcel Carne
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  190 Minutes
Release Date:  January 22, 2002

“It’s always sad when someone has to sleep alone.”

Film ****

Children of Paradise is one of the most beloved French movies of all time.  It earned international fame not only for the quality of the picture itself, but under the almost unimaginable conditions under which it was made. 

It shot for two years during the Nazi occupation of France, when economics were at their worst.  The Germans oversaw nearly every aspect of making movies in those days, and had strict rules about content, length, and the number of Germans that had to be employed per production.  Director Marcel Carne had a crew that actually consisted of Nazis and resistance fighters working side by side with no knowledge of each other’s existence, and even at least two Jews serving as scorer and production designer in the strictest of secrecy.

Production often had to be shut down and moved from Paris to Nice and back again whenever conditions made it impossible to continue…yet with all this adversity, the highest compliment one could pay Carne is that you’d never tell it by looking at his finished product.

The movie is a grand period piece and costume drama told on an impressively large scale.  Watch how the curtain opens on the first part, “The Boulevard of Crime”, and you’ll see people and landscapes seemingly stretched into infinity (an optical illusion, but an impressive one).  You’ll see French people at their most beautiful and poetic; not the sad, starving faces of those suffering under Nazi oppression.  Most of all, you’ll see a picture that embraces the simple idea of love.  More than embrace it, actually…more like revel in it and relish it.

The heart of the movie is the tale of four men who love one woman, each in a different way.  That woman is Garance (Arletty), the calm catalyst of the picture.  The men are the mime Baptiste (Barrault), who loved her tragically, the actor Frederick LeMaitre (Brasseur), who loved her comically, the Count Edouard de Montray (Salou) who loved her possessively, and the sly criminal Lacenaire (Herrand) who loved her cynically…by his own admission, he does not love her; she is merely the only woman he doesn’t hate.

Garance, we understand, is a high class courtesan, though this is never addressed directly in the narrative.  Our first glance of her is in a well, where she revolves naked with a mirror…part of a sideshow exhibit where she is called “truth”.  It’s hard to read her sometimes…she is a little older, very beautiful, very smart, but a little too good at role playing.  Her enigmatic behavior invites us along for the story, over which her true feelings begin to emerge, slowly but surely.

One by one, we see her encounter the main men in the story.  Frederick is an aspiring actor with a delightfully pompous charm who woos her in the street with an unashamed obviousness.  Lacenaire is more or less the villain of the piece.  His cool attitude is one of calling things by their proper name, and one that isn’t above the blackest of deeds when he feels they best serve his purpose.

The picture’s real romantic heart comes between Garance and Baptiste, the mime.  When we first encounter him on the streets, he is doing nothing, but he springs to life in a delightful short performance to defend Garance against a false pickpocketing charge.  The grateful lady throws him a rose, and from that moment on, the talented Baptiste has only one love and passion.

It doesn’t help that the theatre owner’s daughter, Nathalie (Casares) also loves him, with a pitiful unrequited love, nor does the arrival of Frederick to their little theatre company (or to the boarding house where Baptiste rents his room).  Before long, Garance will have wandered in and out of both men’s beds, without a lot of tell-tale emotion.

The final man is the Count, who is a Freudian delight.  He does things big where Garance is concerned, presenting her with a bouquet so large that it looks like he just dug up some bush, and holding his high silk hat phallically on his lap.  He presents her with a card to use in case she ever finds herself in trouble, and as fate would have it, she has to use it at the end of the first part, when once again falsely accused of a crime.

Part Two starts about six years later.  Garance had left France with the Count, the sad Baptiste married Nathalie and had a son with her, Frederick has become a legitimate star of the stage, and Lacenaire is still Lacenaire.  As Garance was a disruption to the men in the first part, she becomes so again, when she returns in hopes of rekindling her love with Baptiste, not knowing he’s married…and unfortunately for him, that’s of little matter when it comes to her.

Love is larger than life in this picture…every character feeds off of it in one form or another, and speaks in a heightened, beautiful language as a result.  The picture is not melodrama as much as it is sheer poetry.  Feelings are big here, as are actions and reactions.  There are no small nor fruitless gestures at hand here.  It’s only fitting that Frederick’s favorite play is Othello, for like Shakespeare’s Moor, this film is peopled with those who love not wisely, but too well.

In addition to being a dramatically rich story filled with memorable characters, the movie is gorgeously filmed…as Terry Gilliam points out in his introduction, there is an almost silvery quality to the images, as though everything had been filmed by moonlight.  It’s one of the most beautiful black and white pictures I’ve seen…not overly expressive, but gentle and thoughtful in the way luminescence can add to a story.  The lighting really is what makes Garance Garance.

This film actually premiered after the end of the occupation, and was instantly heralded as a masterwork, running continuously for over a year.  As Roger Ebert pointed out, it plays somewhere in France every week to this day.  One can easily see why some call it the greatest French film ever…it’s filled with ideas and emotions, terrific performances, and a heightened sense of style that few pictures have ever duplicated.

Video ***1/2

Criterion worked miracles again with this terrific new transfer.  Children of Paradise will probably never look better than it does right here.  Which is not to say it has been completely rescued from the ravages of time…indeed, a few stretches here and there could only be brought back so far…but darn near.  The lustrous images have been restored to their full luminescent quality (yes, very silvery), and are returned to their original sharpness and contrast levels.  By and large, the clean up is impressive, with much of the telltale marks, spots and scratches digitally removed.  A few darker segments fell into the category of a little harder to fix (a fact that Criterion doesn’t shy away from in the restoration demonstration), but one can’t argue that overall, the results are more than impressive.  Once again, this company has done right by lovers of great cinema.  

Audio **1/2

The audio has also been brought back a long way…though dialogue clarity is never an issue (being in French), this new track restores a lot of the original dynamic range brought about by the music, effects and speeches.  There is a bit of background noise noticeable from time to time, but nothing distracting, and certainly acceptable given the picture’s age and history.

Features ***1/2

Each portion of the film has its own excellent commentary track…Part One features film scholar Brian Stonehill, who addresses a lot of the background of the film, including those of the actors and the real-life people a couple of them portrayed.  Part Two features film scholar Charles Affron, who picks up the discussions of the motifs and themes, development of the characters, and ultimately, the film’s reception and long cinematic life.  Both men are intelligent and good speakers, and offer a wealth of information to help enhance the enjoyment of this French classic.

Disc One also includes a video introduction by Terry Gilliam and a restoration demonstration (a real eye-opener).  Disc Two rounds out with a VERY Americanized trailer for the film, looks at the film treatment and production design, filmographies, and a stills gallery.


Children of Paradise is a film no serious film lover can afford to pass up.  With this nicely restored double disc offering from Criterion, there hasn’t been a better way to experience Marcel Carne’s luminous masterpiece since the 1940s.