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The desire of the crowd

Iain Topliss revisits Marcel Carné’s classic, Les Enfants du Paradis

Iain Topliss 27 April 2012 1498 words

Les Enfants du Paradis
Directed by Marcel Carné | Umbrella Entertainment | $29.95

WHEN I read that a restored print of Les Enfants du Paradis had been released in Britain late last year I thought of the annual late-night screenings of Marcel Carné’s celebrated film at the Valhalla Cinema in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond in the 1980s. On those evenings Victoria Street was an irresistible substitute for the Boulevard of Crime. During the interval the crowd on the street seemed an outpouring of the crowd on the screen. It was the perfect place to see the film.

This line of thought was encouraged by the film itself, in which the boundaries between art and life were constantly crossed and re-crossed and the identity of a character in the film often merged with the identity of the actor who was playing the role. The famous mime is played by a famous mime; the impoverished heroine with a working-class childhood is played by a working-class actress whose father worked with the tramways and whose mother was a washerwoman. The democratic emphasis is a key to the film.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was made during the Occupation years, in Nice, in Vichy France. Set in the Parisian theatrical world of the 1840s, it is about, roughly, the necessity of art, the struggle for self-realisation, the quest for love, and what the English literary critic John Bayley, thinking of Keats, called the erotic fantasies of the lower middle classes. At its centre is Le Théâtre des Funambules (“The Theatre of the Tightrope Walkers” – everyone in the film is, in some sense, a tightrope walker), a mime house that stages low-grade, circus-like, dumb-show entertainments for a demanding and noisy audience. (It is easy to sympathise with the man who tries to maintain order by calling out, “Shut up! I can’t hear the mime!”) A proper theatre, with a royal patent permitting the actors to speak, is further down the road, but strict prohibitions prevent any performer in the Funambules from uttering a word, so there is comedy and drama as well as a fine when the rule is broken.

The film follows the careers of two men, both historical figures, the actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), and the mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), and their fascination with the demimondaine they both love, Garance (Léonie Bathiat, who was known as “Arletty”). The large supporting cast ranges from a supposedly blind beggar, Fil de Soie (Gaston Modot), who is in fact an amateur of Baptiste’s mimes, through the sinister criminal-artist, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), to the higher reaches of the aristocracy in the Compte de Montray (Louis Salou). The film is notable for an engrossing and complicated plot that twists the lives of these characters around that of Garance.

It was once very well regarded. A group of French critics voted it The Best Film Ever in 1995, and it has often appeared in those lists of top ten films, although not, to my knowledge, recently. Many artists, including Bob Dylan, Theodore Roszak and Terry Gilliam, have testified to its importance for them, but perhaps the dismal failure of a 1996 London stage version, directed by Simon Callow, marked the beginning of its current decline.

I haven’t seen any advertisements for a screening of the film for a long time, although the new digitally enhanced print might herald a return to favour, and its reception in London was by all accounts enthusiastic.

Frédérick and Baptiste are that double act so profitably exploited by the French, the binary. Frédérick is shallow, one of life’s amiable opportunists, the man without a plan, who takes life easily, optimistically, generously, riskily and courageously. Baptiste is a deep, but obsessive, perfectionist, an idealist who fails his most important life challenge, and then, six years later, thinks he can go back and start all over again. Frédérick, a creature of the street, is a man of words; Baptiste, a creature of the moon – from where he dropped into a bucket, so his father tells us – is a man of gesture. Mime, we reflect, is an art form appropriate to a lunar landscape both airless and soundless, where gravity exerts but a fractional influence. The film asks: “What are you, a Frédérick or a Baptiste? Which would you rather be? Whose, now you see the evidence, is the better approach to life?”

For my money, and simplifying grotesquely, it is Frédérick’s. Brasseur’s performance gets Frédérick’s vitality, confidence and inventiveness exactly, most typically in the wonderful scene where he is accosted by Lacenaire, who has come to demand money from him. It is, Lacenaire explains, “a matter of life or death.” Flushed with his success as an actor, Frédérick, who has never seen Lacenaire before, unselfishly divides his lottery winnings with him, invites him to dinner, reminisces and chats. Only at the end, as an afterthought, does he ask whether it really was a matter of life or death for anyone. “Certainly,” says Lacenaire, pulling back his coat and showing his dagger. “Yours.” One could hardly think of a better example of the need to go with the flow.

This is all as may be, for it has always seemed to me that rather than any character it is the crowd, with its insatiable desire for imaginative transformation, that is the affirmative engine of the film. To give the crowd this role was a defiant gesture in the years 1943–45. The story of the film’s making shows what a conflicted place France was at that time: on the one hand writer Jacques Prévert and Carné were left-wing French patriots who employed as key crew members Jews who had to work clandestinely and uncredited; on the other hand one cast member, Robert le Vigan, fled early in the shooting after the Resistance sentenced him to death for collaboration, and the beautiful heroine, Arletty, had a lover in the German military in Paris (her famous justification was “si mon cœur est français, mon cul, lui, est international” – “lui” is especially droll). The thousands of extras that make up the crowd include both collaborators and members of the Resistance.

The crowd makes the careers of Frédérick and Baptiste possible. The corrupt, aristocratic and quasi-aristocratic individualists – the Compte and Lacenaire – fail utterly, partly because they have no relation to the crowd. Frédérick and Baptiste, the actor and mime who succeed, do, and come across less as individuals than as projections of the crowd’s need for art. In an early scene, after they have risen to the challenge to perform in a crude pantomime at a moment’s notice, Frédérick and Baptiste share a drink at an all-night canteen. Frédérick hoists a sample member of the crowd up by his collar, shakes him, and reminds him that the actor’s duty is to “revive the giants of the earth.” Baptiste, less egotistical, more sentimental, thinks of the man’s poverty and adds, “Their lives may be small but their dreams are vast.” Performers like Frédérick and Baptiste are indeed “the children of paradise,” or “the children of the gods,” for paradis (French) is the gods (English), the cheap seats at the top of the playhouse, where the crowd, whose thirty centimes are the economic basis of the show, can enjoy the spectacle.

How just, then, that the film should return to the crowd time and time again in one unforgettable image after another – the crowd, idly seeking distraction from tawdry sideshows on the street, the crowd jigging drunkenly in the sinister Redbreast Inn, the crowd jeering, shouting, applauding, hanging over the galleries at the Funambules. The same crowd swallows up the principal characters at the end of the film. This crowd, a creature partly of the February Days of 1848 and partly of the postwar euphoria of 1945, the first child of the revolutionary mob, the harbinger of the (imperfect) Fourth Republic, is fundamental to the film. It is, at a dangerous historical moment, the film’s assertion of fraternal, egalitarian and libertarian – if not yet decolonising – values. Those were the days.

As to the Valhalla, it is long gone, replaced by a row of shops and a tower with a clock that never works. Gone too is the crowd that once spilled out over Victoria Street at half-past midnight on a cold Sunday morning. •

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