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Sunday, 29 July 2012

I Mislpaced It At The Movies: 'Paradis' Found

Exactly one year to the day since the ~Streetlamp~ had enjoyed it's soul cleansing visit to Portencross, we gathered together again, as we had agreed, to set off on another journey into the unknown. Unfortunately for us, the Scottish weather counteracted our plan and decided to offer a cornucopia of high winds, swirling rain and muggy humidity....not a good mix! And with the hills and valleys turned to boggy marshes, even hardy perennials like ourselves had to concede defeat.
So, we turned to Plan B, and decided to have ourselves a mini film festival....

We settled on four choices; Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'The Gospel According To Matthew', the recent Norwegian faux-documentary 'Trollhunter', Giuseppe Tornatore's follow up to 'Cinema Paradiso', 'Malena', and Marcel Carné's 'Les Enfants Du Paradis'. A mixed bunch for sure, and while it would doubtless take me pages and pages to try to analyse the four films in any kind of detail, I've decided to look at what was undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend; 'Les Enfants Du Paradis'.

To describe the plot of 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' often does the film a disservice as it makes the film seem soap opera-ish and a bit soppy, something I warned Griff and Ray before the film commenced. Set in Paris circa 1830, the film sees four men fall under the spell of Parisian courtesan and free spirit, Garance. The men; actor Frédérick Lemaitre, mime artist Baptiste Debureau, aristocrat Count Edouard De Montray, and thief-with-the-soul-of-a-poet Pierre-Francoise Lacenaire all fall heavily for Garance's charms, but none as completely and utterly as Baptiste, whose entire life is taken over by his burning, unrequited love for Garance.
Garance herself, seemingly oblivious to the affect she is having on the four men, shimmers through Paris's 'Boulevard Du Crime' unaware of the murder, madness, home-wrecking and heartache she is causing. That basically is the plot, which may sound underwhelming, but the same could be said of any condensed film plot; newspaper baron reflects on his life, businessman realises his failure of a life has been wonderful after all, two actors in the late 1960s go on holiday to a cottage in get the idea.

So why then does 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' garner such praise as 'the greatest French film of all time', 'the French Gone With The Wind', and in some case 'the greatest film ever made'?
There are many reasons; the script by Jacques Prevert for a start is simply majestic. Every character is given witty, erudite, sparkling lines that reek of cool and hang in the air like Gitane smoke. The acting, right down to the peripheral characters is of the highest calibre; Jean-Louis Barrault who plays Baptiste, excels in the scenes where he performs his mimes in public and infuses the off-stage actor with a truly heartfelt pathos as he yearns for Garance. Marcel Herrand plays Pierre-Francoise with a roguish devilry that betrays his poetic heart. Louis Salou plays Count Edouard, at heart the villain of the piece, as a cold, calculating upper class scoundrel who doesn't think twice about killing anyone who looks at Garance the wrong way. Then there's Pierre Brasseur who dominates every scene as Frédérick, chewing the scenery as both character and actor and devouring every line with relish.

The part of Garance, played by Arletty, is the one performance that has accumulated most criticism. Not that there's a single thing wrong with her portrayal, just that many believe she's too old(she was 45 at the time) to play such a luminescent figure. However the film-makers needed a big name to open the film, and in 1945 there was no bigger name in French cinema. What Arletty does bring to the performance is assurance, presence and star quality, items she has in droves. The DOP's ways of filming her to disguise her age also means that she is the most beautifully lit actress this side of Garbo.

But the main reason for the French film industry to fall over itself in praising 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' is the conditions under which the film was made. The entire shoot was done under the very noses of the Nazi Occupation, using many Resistance figures and Jewish performers and technicians working under aliases. That the huge sound-stages, meticulously capturing 'la Belle Epoque' were constructed with breathtaking detail is a miracle in itself. Only one scene in the entire movie is shot on earth did they get away with it? The film also had to be broken down into two parts to avoid suspicion, which although a slight nuisance, does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the piece.

So....given all the plaudits, all the ribbons and trinkets bestowed upon the film, why does the film elude the majority of non-French speaking film lovers? Pure laziness it would seem. It's well known that many people in Britain and the US simply won't watch subtitled movies, but 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' proves this to be pure folly! Neither Griff nor Ray had seen the film before, almost purely because it never shows up anywhere! As far as I'm aware, the film has only ever been shown on British TV once, and for a while was only available on a VHS cassette released by arthouse video company Artificial Eye. Only recently has it been deemed worthy of a DVD release! For what is considered one of the greatest films ever made? How can this be?

I first became aware of  'Les Enfants Du Paradis' back around 1990. I was in the transitional stage of switching my enthusiasm for music to films, and had recently purchased all three volumes of Danny Peary's peerless compendium 'Cult Movies'. His bristling enthusiasm for 'Les Enfants Du Paradis', which he described as one of the greatest films ever made led, me to wonder why, then, I'd never heard of it. The film was finally released in 1994 on the VHS I mentioned earlier and I immediately snapped it up. I have to confess that I expected to be somewhat disappointed, but from the minute the look in Baptiste's eyes changes the first time he sees Garance, I knew I was in safe hands, and the resulting three hours passed like a dream.

For a period of time, if asked, I would declare 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' as my favourite film of all time, but repeatedly having to try and explain what the film was to the uninitiated (which for a while seemed like everyone!) dampened my zeal somewhat.
Watching 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' with Griff and Ray was a joy however, as it was the first time I had ever watched the film with what constituted an audience. Long, long after the film had finished, we were still debating and discussing the film's myriad treats. Once again I felt like I had just watched my favourite film of all time.

If you've never seen 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' before, I urge you to seek it out. You won't be disappointed!

Bon Nuit,


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