The original American trailer for Children of Paradise (1945) called it France’s answer to Gone with the Wind, but there are so many better ways to describe this incredible film. You could spend hours discussing its beautiful recreation of 19th century Paris or its excellent cast. But more than anything it is one of the great masterpieces of one of France’s many superb types of cinema: poetic realism.
Poetic realism was the kind of amorphous semi-movement that had space for the charming romance L’Atalante (the only feature-length film directed by Jean Vigo) as well as the gritty proto-noir La Bête Humaine (which Jean Renoir directed a year before he made the incomparable La Règle du Jeu). The most important quality that unites these and other disparate films under that label is their spirit of presenting a vision of reality that is paradoxically gritty and lyrical. The working-class characters in poetic realist films operated in environments that often contained a strong crime element as well as a sense of the joy that can exist in the darkest places. They often pursued romantic relationships that offered transcendence even as they ended in tragedy.
Children of Paradise tells a story that includes all of these elements. It follows three men with working class roots — actor Frédérick, mime Baptiste, and criminal/playwright Lacenaire — as they become entangled with a performer named Garance. Baptiste loves her the most, but she has an affair with Frédérick. Garance eventually leaves Paris to marry a count. But when she returns to Paris after several years, Garance goes to the theater every night to watch the performances of her true love: Baptiste.
This story of triumph and tragedy plays out against the backdrop of a theater district nicknamed “The Boulevard of Crime.” From director Marcel Carné’s first shot of the quarter-mile-long, expansively extravagant set (at the time the most expensive one in French history) depicting gruff criminals and joyful street performers, it is clear that this world has the mixture of danger and delight which is crucial to poetic realism. In addition, this set — which its creators somehow built during the devastating German occupation of Paris, a time when production designer Alexandre Trauner had to design every set in secret because he was Jewish — gives this film an epic scale that matches its characters’ grand passions.
This film’s excellent cast makes you feel the full intensity of those passions. Pierre Brasseur expertly portrays Frédérick’s evolution from arrogance to rueful wisdom. Jean-Louis Barrault, who was a mime in real life, gives a passionate and heartbreaking performance as Baptiste. Arletty plays Garance and her enigmatic smile is one that you will never forget. Every single performance, including one by Renoir’s older brother Pierre, adds to this film’s mosaic of rich humanity.
You can enjoy Children of Paradise without knowing a single thing about poetic realism. But if you take the time to learn about that beautiful moment in French cinema, it will enhance your appreciation of how this film is a grand monument to its history.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.