1945, France, Marcel Carne
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. [***]