Children of Paradise was originally released in France in 1945 with the title Les enfants du paradis. The Criterion Collection released the film on Blu-Ray as Spine # 141, after having previously been releases on DVD. The film was directed by Marcel Carné, who has four total films in the collection: Port of Shadows (Spine #245), Le jour se lève (Essential Art House DVD, out of print), and Les visiteurs du soir (Spine # 626).
In 19th Century France, a charming and beautiful woman is romantically pursued by four different suitors: a mime, a thief, a stage actor, and an aristocrat.
Each of the men engaged in courtship with the angelic and beautiful Garrance are built from real French personalities of the era. Their efforts to woo the film’s heroine are colored by their careers and insightful dialogue. The intersection of these characters establishes a surprising consistency of dramatic value, the spinning plates of romance, passion, and violence never drop during an astonishing three hour runtime.
Garrance herself (played by Arletty) occupies a rare state in the history of film. While she is the object of affection of numerous men, she is never objectified, never really the object. At the time of filming, the actress Arletty was the oldest of the film’s stars and little is done to play down her seniority. In some cases, she’s decades older than the man in pursuit. Hers is an aged beauty and a highlighted intelligence, both rendering keen advantage in her exchanges. In fact, when each suitor finds a degree of success in his romantic venture, the exchange is ended when the situation falls outside of Garrance’s terms and desires.
Children of Paradise moves swiftly through turns of violence and poetry, dreamlike fantasy and focused realism. The characters, the expansive scene arrangement, the theatrical setting, the onscreen audience all work to create a layered cake of political, religious, and philosophical allegory. This is the rare film that offers endless interpretative viewings, each speaking to the greatness in the quality of work.
Children of Paradise was filmed during the German occupation of France. The empowered regime forbid any film to be produced at longer than 90 minutes of length. Because of this, much of the film’s production was kept secret. Filmmakers used whatever film and cameras they could. Filming was discreet, even in secret. Entire reels of film were hidden in production. One of the film’s stars was accused of conspiring with Nazis. He was forced to flee, leaving the filmmakers to reshoot all of his scenes with more equipment.
The storage and combined method of filming resulted in the physical film aging poorly and a nearly ruined movie. In 2011, the company Pathe restored the footage to pristine condition, saving the film in one of the most remarkable restorations in movie history. This is the version made available on Criterion, with a standard digital transfer (that is admittedly less impressive).
The release comes with a slew of extras. Audio commentaries by scholars, Terry Gilliam’s introduction, interviews with the director and crew. While interesting and informative, this is all very standard for the Criterion series. What historical film fans will find most fascinating is likely to be the demonstration of the restoration process and Once Upon a Time: “Children of Paradise,” a documentary about the tumultuous effort that went into making the film.
Children of Paradise is one of the greatest films of all time, an early high water mark measuring the capability and magic of the medium. This release highlights this status and serves as a great reminder for why the efforts and ambition of the Criterion series are so important to the art of film and its role in our current culture.
Film Grade: A+
Criterion Grade: A