Another month, another fine film viewed from my list of 12 Classics for 2016/ the Blind Spot Challenge.
I admit I kept delaying Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise and left it for last because I was worried about the 3+ hour run time; I shouldn’t have, since it moved so fast through 6 years of story about tangled, unrequited and doomed love. Time flies as you watch the lives of 3 men in 1820s France, whose fortunes and feelings center on the alluring, indecisive and unattainable courtesan Garance (Arietty). She initially loves the ambitious actor Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), while talented mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) desperately loves Garance but marries theater manager’s daughter Nathalie (María Casares). Garance also enters a loveless marriage, with the jealous Count de Montray (Louis Salou), after notorious criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) implicates her in a crime. She leaves Paris and returns years later as a veiled lady who repeatedly attends Baptiste’s hit performances, until her presence is discovered and revelations about who she truly loves throws all their lives into disarray.
Of all my 2016 blind spot movies, this was the one I knew least about going in, and after watching I’ve been reading up about its making, its WW2/resistance readings and the ways it’s compared to Gone with the Wind. It certainly is an expensive, epic costume drama with grandly romantic scenes about a woman who fails to choose one man until she has no options left. But this is still very much its own sad and beautiful masterpiece, with an often cynical and amusing focus on backstage drama and actors’ egos. It’s told through a few pivotal moments, and in two parts with a cliffhanger ending the first. There are magical meetings, hopeful signs, crushed ambitions, challenges to duel, near-arrests, then heartbreaking realizations of wasted time, misplaced trust and lost opportunities. Early on there is a sense of danger with the thrills, of the potential for bad choices to destroy lives and a growing foreboding that this must all end in some grandiose tragedy (which it does, but not in ways I expected).
The final scenes are gorgeous (to pick just a few of a movie full of them), set in the crush of the wild carnival crowd, through which Garance weaves with unnatural grace and speed, to a carriage and away, while Baptiste is relentlessly pushed back by the sea of bodies. She stands out the whole time, visible from a distance before vanishing like the wisp of smoke these gents have been trying unsuccessfully to grasp. She is the calm, unreadable, mesmerizing centre in this theatrical, always-on world of performers, a woman representing something completely different to each admirer, and inspiring or ruining them accordingly.
…and stay tuned because I’ll be posting my 2017 list!