Folks who lived in and around New Paltz during the 1970s heyday of its illustrious repertory cinema, the Academy Theatre – housed in the cavernous space that is now the upstairs dining room of Barnaby’s Restaurant – tend to share affectionate memories of certain films that the Academy’s proprietor, the late Donald Bellinger, liked to screen once a year or so. Among those traditional favorites was the 1945 French Romantic classic, Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). Seen on the big screen, that film quickly became my favorite movie of all time: an opinion that I continue to share with LA Times film critic Ken Turan and many others.
Decent copies of Children of Paradise are now available on DVD, but getting to see it on a big screen has been a rare treat in the ensuing decades since repertory cinemas like the Academy and Manhattan’s Elgin and Thalia started dying off. So if you truly love movies, you mustn’t miss the opportunity that the Rosendale Theatre is offering on Tuesday, September 10 at 7:15 p.m., when the so-called “French Gone with the Wind” will be screened there, resuming the Theatre’s monthly Views from the Edge series after a summer hiatus.
The frequently cited comparison with Gone with the Wind works mostly in terms of the epic scale and opulent design of both films. Having seen Children of Paradise first, it created unrealistic expectations of artistic excellence and emotional resonance that were sorely disappointed when I finally did get around to GWTW. Scarlett O’Hara’s flamboyant speeches of defiance against fate look like childish hissy fits next to the dignified acceptance of life’s unfairnesses embodied by Garance (Arletty), the elegant, worldly-wise courtesan who seemingly rivets the attention of every man in 1828 Paris in Children of Paradise.
Set in the Boulevard du Crime, the entertainment district dominated by the competing Théâtre des Funambules and Grand Theater, Jacques Prévert’s screenplay is loosely based on the lives of four real-life characters from early-19th-century Paris. There’s a famous mime named Jean-Gaspard Deburau, known on the stage as Baptiste Debureau and played in the film by the brilliant Jean-Louis Barrault, one of whose protégés was Marcel Marceau. There’s an equally famous actor named Frédérick Lemaître, portrayed by Pierre Brasseur. There’s the dandified poet/murderer Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who saw himself as a social rebel rather than a criminal. And the aristocrat who imagines that he can buy Garance’s love, the Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), was inspired by the historical Duc de Morny.
The trajectories of all four major male characters are fatefully shaped by their powerful attraction to Garance, the daughter of a laundress who is determined to live and love on her own terms but does whatever she has to do to survive. Lacenaire uses her as arm candy and an accomplice in his petty street crime operation; Frédérick’s lightweight amorous dalliance with Garance gives way unexpectedly to the jealousy that he needs to tap in order to play Othello convincingly; the wealthy Comte bails her out of a legal jam and makes her his mistress but never manages to win her heart. The only one who truly does is Baptiste, who passes up his sole chance to make love to Garance when she does not instantly return his proferred devotion, and spends the next seven years ruing his folly in the guise of the moonstruck Pierrot onstage.
“Love is so simple,” Garance tells Baptiste on their long night together of flirtation, danger, rescue and ultimate miscommunication. But amongst the manifold forms of love and art exemplified by these four swains, such simplicity seems to elude them all until it’s too late. It’s a magnificent, complex and tragic tale that works on many more levels than can be explicated here, but fully justifies the film’s 195-minute running time.
What make Children of Paradise all the more remarkable are the astounding conditions under which it was filmed – with a cast of thousands for some street scenes during Carnival – in Nazi-occupied Paris and Nice. Members of the French Resistance movement and Vichy collaborators unknowingly worked side-by-side in the cast. The producer, set designer and composer all had to work under assumed names because they had Jewish ancestry. Film critic and historian Pauline Kael claimed that a massive banquet scene was canceled when starving extras carried off the food. Film was rationed and materials for building sets scarce.
But somehow Children of Paradise got made, and managed to come out of this challenging stew of harsh working conditions looking, sounding and feeling like one of the lushest movie masterpieces of all time. If you’ve got a single romantic bone in your body, or if you cherish any affection for the subculture of theatre high and low, it will stay with you forever. See it in a real cinema while you can.
Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise, Tuesday, September 10, 7:15 p.m., $7/$5 members, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.rosendaletheatre.org.