Movie Review: Children of Paradise

1945, France, Marcel Carne

Marcel Carne: Children of ParadiseDid I miss something?

After years of waiting to see this film, (and when I say years, I mean two decades) I was finally able to catch it on the big screen and I’m sad to say that it left me underwhelmed. I must have missed something.

In its defense, no movie can really live up to so much hype (“I loved that movie!”–“I’ve seen that movie ten times!”–“The finest French film ever made!”) Citizen Kane suffered the same fate for me, but while I didn’t like that movie much, I can appreciate what it did for the art of film. In the case of Children though, I missed whatever quality of the film it is that makes people love it so.

I can understand that it’s an amazing feat that the film was made in the first place, since it was made in opposition to, and right under the noses of, the Nazi occupation. Lavish in production, with elaborate sets and hundreds of extras, the film’s creative team got around many of the restrictions placed on film by the Nazis, including having Jews working on the film, under assumed names. Aside from the difficulties of production, and the context in which the film was made, the film itself didn’t win me over. And at a running time of three hours, it took a long time in getting there.

The story of a beautiful woman and the four men who love and lose her, Children of Paradise is set in a 19-century theatre troupe, where performances on stage mirror the action of the characters behind the scenes. It’s one big tale of unrequited love: Baptiste is a famous mime who falls instantly and madly in love with Garance, a side-show attraction and paramour of a thief and murderer. Garance also has an affair with a fellow actor and later becomes the kept woman of a wealthy count. The whole thing is very French and very melodramatic. About two hours into the story, when I was starting to get slightly exasperated with the story and the characters, it suddenly occurred to me that it’s very much like watching an opera. In opera you have to be willing to cut the characters a lot of slack–people profess their feelings and fall in love at the drop of a hat. They can instantly change alliances, or develop a murderous hatred for another character in the span of two measures of music. So, when I looked at the movie in these terms, I was okay with it.

But then it just ended (I won’t spoil it by saying how) and…that was it. The movie just wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go where I thought it was leading, and in the end I was like, “That’s it?” So, I’ve rented the DVD and plan to watch it again with the commentary to try to glean some better understanding of why it’s such a highly regarded film. Because, on its own, storywise, it just didn’t do it for me.

Here’s the Gist:
Calling all aspiring opera composers! Think about adapting Children of Paradise. Tragic romance, humor, period setting, murder and revenge–it has all the makings of a great opera. [***]

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review: Children of Paradise

  1. I’d love to see your top 10 (or so)) list of movies that were a crashing disappointment to you. What other classics or highly touted films just haven’t lived up to their “great” status? And may I offer up “The Quiet Man” to get the ball rolling?
    Another spin on that–what movie technique bugs you most these days? You know, like when everything in the movie is based on a simple misunderstanding that most people, in real life as well as in the movies, would clear up in a matter of minutes.
    Mine is when the main character has no friends whatsoever–they sit around feeling sad and empty over their seemingly meaningless life. Then they make a bad or at least weird choice to propel the movie forward. I’m thinking Jennifer Aniston in “The Good Girl,” a movie that I actually liked. It was hard for me to believe, however, that her character simply had no friends beyond the slightly batty coworker at Rodeo Bargain Drugs, or wherever it was they worked. Ditto Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt.” I realize the whole point of the movie was that he devoted his whole life to work, and then was left with nothing when he retired. But I simply can’t accept that these characters haven’t managed to develop at least one decent friend or even outside interest by the time we meet them in the movie. That doesn’t mean they can’t still make a bad choice (and hence push the plot ahead), but they’d seem a little more real that way–and we as audience members would perhaps care a little more about them as well. It would also put a little more at stake–we’d sense they were making a choice, as opposed to being driven by the sheer, unexplainable emptiness of their lives. I’m thinking about “Far from Heaven”–one of the best scenes was the talk between Julianne Moore’s character and her best friend, played by Patricia Clarkeson–at that point you realized how distant Moore’s character was even from her best friend. It was much more effective than her feeling from the outset that she had no friends or even a real life. Seeing the illusions stripped away is far more devastating and interesting than offering a stripped-down life at the outset (as in “The Good Girl” or “About Schmidt”).

  2. The idea of making a Top 10 Most Anticipated, Most Disappointing Films is a good one. I’ll have to think about that…
    Regarding the other point, I have zero patience for any plot that revolves around a completely ridiculous misunderstanding that could be cleared up in 10 seconds, and is really only there to serve the idiotic plot–that kind of *hilarious* (deep sarcasm) miscommunication only happens in TV-sitcom-land.

  3. Another list possibility–Movies that Bear up Despite Repeated Viewings. Which of your favorite films do you still really enjoy, and perhaps even take something new from each time you see it? I suspect “Sunset Boulevard” is up there. Anything else? What movie have you seen the most, anyway? My personal record is “The Graduate,” for reasons I won’t go into. It does hold up pretty well, I have to say.

  4. The movie I’ve seen the most times is probably “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” which I saw eight times in the theatre. What can I say–I was seven.
    At this point I’ve probably seen “Sunset Blvd” and “Some Like It Hot” at least ten times each. I’ve seen “Uncle Buck” and “Crossing Delancy” countless times. Those two are guilty pleasure movies that I’ll stop on whenever I’m channel surfing.

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