What's left to be said about Marcel Carné's towering, intimate epic of early 19th–century love and the lives of performers, often heralded as the greatest French film of all time? That Children of Paradise, being shown at the Playhouse and Royal theaters June 1-7 in a new 4K restoration, was made at all only enhances its legendary status: It was shot in wartime Nice from August 1943 to April 1944 and finally premiered in Paris in March 1945.
Establishing its fascination with the theater (and the theatrical), the film commences with a raised curtain. Frustrated rakish actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur) and heartsick mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) both are drawn — the latter especially — to Garance (the magnificent Arletty, later accused of collaborating with the enemy for having taken a German lover during the Occupation). This onetime “model for Ingres” also will enchant murderous intellectual Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and the libertine Count de Montray (Louis Salou).
“I want you to love me the way I love you” is heard twice in Children of Paradise, a perfect summation of screenwriter Jacques Prévert's rich detailing of romantic desperation and feelings not reciprocated — or realized too late.
Barrault's silent, white-faced character has long been the film's most indelible image. Seen anew (I last saw this masterwork 20 years ago), his Baptiste, delicate, bashful and wraithlike, makes for a fascinatingly incongruous romantic lead — which somehow makes Children of Paradise even more touching. (Playhouse, Royal)