A French classic reveals the beauty of theatrical and cinematic performance

A French classic reveals the beauty of theatrical and cinematic performance

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur, based on a play about a playwright, has us thinking back on other films about the theater.

Children Of Paradise (1945)

There’s an irresistible lyricism to Children Of Paradise, an effervescent fleetness to its melodrama that—far more than its period setting—makes it a marvel of classical big-budget filmmaking. Marcel Carné’s 1945 masterwork takes as its setting Paris’ Funambules theater (circa the early 1830s), whose more boisterous second-balcony patrons give the work its title. Behind the curtain of that establishment’s stage, a grand romantic entanglement plays out, all of it revolving around the lovely Garance (Arletty), whose affections are sought by four different suitors: celebrated mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), great actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur), notorious criminal Pierre-François (Marcel Herrand), and possessive Count De Montray (Louis Salou). This quartet craves Garance’s love with uncontrollable fervor. Yet over the course of the two acts and more than three hours, each man discovers that the object of his affection is a difficult one to acquire, given that her independent streak compels her to repeatedly reject any sort of permanent coupling.

Carné’s film has the flair of a rousing theatrical production but the skillful poetry of cinema, as evidenced, for example, by a beautifully subtle and graceful shot in which the director’s camera rotates from looking at the exterior of a window where one man is speaking, to the interior of another window, where the gent reappears, inside, in the background. More thrilling still are sequences set in the bustling Parisian streets, where carnivalesque characters mingle and frolic with a reckless abandon. While everyone is suitably larger than life, it’s Barrault’s turn as the gifted mime Baptiste that towers above them all, especially during those scenes of him presenting his semi-autobiographical show to adoring crowds, his gift for silent expression confirming the majesty of both live and cinematic performance. He’s a brilliant star, and one whose voiceless artistry provides a thrilling counterpoint to the rambunctious verbal volleying that defines the rest of this most regal of old-school epics.

Availability: Children Of Paradise is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, which can obtained through Netflix, and to stream on Hulu Plus.


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