In British cinema, we have Brief Encounter (1945). American film has Casablanca (1942) and Gone with the Wind (1939). In France, meanwhile, the romantic film par excellence will always be Marcel Carné’s epic Les Enfants du paradis.
Seventy years after it premiered at the Chaillot Palace in Paris on 9 March 1945, this sweeping tragedy of France’s 19th-century theatre world remains within the pantheon of cinematic heartbreakers. Carné’s film brims with vitality in its tribute to love, Paris and the stage, at the same time that it courses with sadness at the idea that not all of us will end up with the ones we love.
Based on a highly literate script by poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, which draws on real-life figures of the 1820s and 1830s, Les Enfants du paradis is set among the actors, criminals and aristocrats who orbit around a theatre on Paris’s so-called ‘Boulevard du Crime’. These include four men love who love the courtesan Garance (Arletty) – the thespian Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the aristocrat Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), the thief Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), and, most tragically, the mime Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault).
Across two parts and a three-hour running time, their romantic entanglements play out in a drama of Balzacian colour and complexity – one that pays equal due to each strata of Parisian society, from the noblemen to the working-class audiences who cram into ‘the gods’ of the theatre (the upper balconies, and the ‘paradise’ of the film’s title) each night to see the latest entertainment.
Made during the Nazi occupation of France (with many of the crew using the production as daytime cover for their work in the Resistance), this was an unusually lavish production for French cinema at the time. The backstage milieu was lovingly recreated by set designer Alexandre Trauner, who had worked with Carné on his classic series of 1930s ‘poetic realist’ dramas – including Drôle de drame (1937) and Hôtel du Nord (1938). As a Jew, Trauner was forced to work on Les Enfants du paradis, his grandest achievement, in secrecy.
Released within a year of the liberation of Paris, Carné’s celebration of the capital’s bygone past met with enormous and immediate success and acclaim, becoming one of the year’s most popular films. Since then its status has barely receded: in 1995, it was voted the greatest French film ever made by 600 industry professionals, while it was also a top 100 title in Sight & Sound’s most recent Greatest Films Ever Made poll.
Les Enfants du paradis: in pictures