Best French Films - Cinéma Saturday - have you seen the Greatest French film ever made?
Last week, we delved into the double bill of Les Petits Mouchoirs & Nous finirons ensemble / Little White Lies & Little White Lies 2. If you missed it, check out that post here. If you also love French TV series, then check out this week's post on the French hit series Call My Agent! / Dix pour cent, available on Netflix, which continues the movie theme.
Back to this week's Cinéma Saturday choice! Today we are revelling in one of the greatest achievements in cinema. Regarded as one of the, if not THE, greatest French film of all time, we're not hanging around with half-hearted recommendations today.
This week's film is Les Enfants du Paradis / Children of Paradise. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Why this film?
Having spent the end of this week ecstatic with news of Dix pour cent returning and my post on that, I have been thinking cinema a lot! I nearly chose another more recent film, but, honestly, with the news of actor Helen McCrory's death at 52, I felt a deep desire to show something of France today that encompasses theatre and film-making; the beauty and craft of a near-perfect film. In fact I had to choose a masterpiece.
Helen McCrory was a theatre, film and TV actor whom I admired greatly, with a spirit and energy that I can only imagine was undiminished by the cancer she had been fighting. She and husband Damian Lewis were two great contemporary actors from the UK and the world is a poorer place without her. Reading her piece on playing Anna Karenina and 19th century Russian society is fascinating and powerful. It also bears some resemblance to our 19th century heroine, Garance, who seeks freedom rather than being possessed by her suitors. A fitting tribute to McCrory has been written by journalist Mark Lawson, which you can find here.
So with that sadness in my heart, it seemed more fitting somehow to explore a classic of French cinema that is an epic; dazzling in its range and proportions.
About the film
With 1800 extras, plus credited cast, this epic film is set amidst the glittering theatre world of early 19th century Paris with the hustle and bustle of city life in all its forms. With direction by cinema great, Marcel Carné, a script by French poet and writer Jacques Prévert, this is like the melding of poetry and cinema in one masterpiece, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it was filmed in Occupied France in 1945. With a cast that at times had to record in secret (Resistance agents using the film as cover were also able to observe Nazi sympathisers), or had to hide footage from the Nazi authorities who wanted to promote the film, which led to interruptions aplenty. It had funding problems, weather problems and not least of all, it was being made in a World War! In short, this film brings to life the 19th century demimonde of Paris but is inexplicably linked to the time in which it was created. Come with me to explore this cinema classic and one of the greatest films ever made, anywhere.
Believe me, this is worth your time! It's even available in a restoration which went around US cinemas in 2012. If you don't believe me - watch this trailer showing the amazing sets and scale of the cast - remarkable ! 😊 Links to where to watch are, as ever, at the foot of this post.
Cast & Crew
Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir, Marcel Herrand, María Casares, Louis Salou.
Screenplay: Jacques Prévert
Cinematographer: Roger Hubert
Awards & Accolades: Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay (1946) for Jacques Prévert. Awarded International Critics Award - Special Mention at the Venice Film Festival. (1946)
In this poetic realist drama, the lovely and enigmatic Parisian actress Garance (Arletty) draws the attention of various men in her orbit, including the thoughtful mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the ambitious actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur). As well as an aristocrat and a criminal. Garance and Baptiste have an undeniable connection but their fortunes shift considerably, pushing them apart as well as bringing them back together, even as they pursue other relationships and lead separate lives. What will Garance do?
What I liked about this film
One of the greatest films ever made. Hmm, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... The smell of greasepaint and the rich mélange of social classes in the theatre of 1820s and 1830s Paris comes across in this Classical, unashamedly poetic realist and romantic film depicting characters we want more of. Frustrated by the Nazi edict that no films over 90 minutes could be made, Carné went ahead and made two films in the hope that soon Paris would be liberated and the two films could be put together and shown that way. In fact, after it premiered in spring 1945, VE Day came shortly afterwards and the film has been said to be shown in Paris cinemas ever since. Somewhere in the city you could go to see this, just like Truffaut did - nine times!
So this epic 182 minutes of romantic beauty and melodrama, invites you into the Paris of Delacroix and Hugo. Hence there is upper class experience alongside the rich seam of the underworld life and the demimonde in a great mix of society on every street and in every theatre. It has Parisian street and theatre life and popular culture of the 1830s all brought to life with dazzling and dizzying proportions.
It has the feeling of theatre of the time. In fact its name derives from the "Paradis" being the second balcony where ordinary people would sit and watch the play, giving their forthright opinions on the action. Like sitting "in the gods" in English. But is actually reminds me of the groundlings of Shakespeare's time. Real people, real emotions, real opinions and a totally different atmosphere to the silence we're so used to today.
Playing with this theatrical theme, the film brings theatrical artifice, reality and appearances into question. The demimonde life of Arletty gives the film a free spirited but perhaps problematic storyline (in 21st century eyes). The story is engaging, epic in its proportion if not in its emotions. With your head, this film is magnificent and fascinating. With your heart, you are drawn in but you want to know more about the characters and to see what is next for them. The backstories alone would make another film!
It stars some of France's greatest theatre actors and so every Prévert phrase is clear and beautiful. The incredible mime artist is played by true mime artist, Jean-Louis Barrault. The power of words and performances makes this story captivating and it draws us into the melodrama unfolding as Garance is the centre of attention for four competing men who all want to possess her: a mime artist, an actor, an aristocrat and a criminal. Will she succeed in finding love within the confines of a society which gives her no expectations of finding love?
Passion, deception and murder. Truly, this film is of 1945 - the themes are romantic, melodramatic but to our eyes also underscored by the betrayals, deceptions and murder going on around everyone involved in this film. Several of the crew who worked on this film so closely with Carné were Jewish and had to be effectively concealed form the authorities, including the film music composer and the production/set designer. Both of whom worked through intermediaries whilst in hiding. (I am glad to report, they made it through the rest of the War.) The set designs, as you can see from the trailer video above, were magnificent. Recreating an entire half-mile boulevard in Paris is no mean feat! The sets were enormous and had to be moved between Nice and Paris. Just think about that for a moment. The sets and crew had to move through Vichy Occupied France in a journey of around 580 miles / 930 kilometres. No wonder this was one of the most expensive French films ever made up to 1945. That it was made at all seems fantastical. I truly believe that Roger Ebert was spot on when he said, in his film review,
That the production, with all of its costumes, carriages, theaters, mansions, crowded streets and rude rooming houses, could have been mounted at that time seems logistically impossible [...]. Carne [sic] was the leading French director of the decade 1935-1945, but to make this ambitious costume film during wartime required more than clout; it required reckless courage.
Reckless courage. Two films to turn into one after your country is liberated from Nazism. Truly, this film is of its time and its generation, creating a classical world of the 1820/30s in Paris but forever bound up with the context of WWII in 1945. For the sheer spectacle this film is worth your time. If you love French film this is a must-see and I'd recommend it to any film lover.
It is a cinematic masterpiece with an engaging storyline, an unbelievable context, and a meticulous restoration which brings its beauty, audacity and dazzling brilliance to the fore. Unmissable!
Where to Find It
Available in many regions on Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and the Criterion Collection channel.
US & UK (clicking will show the product in your Amazon region*)
BluRay 4K restoration
If you're still not sure, here are three reasons why this film is great, and three good reasons to watch it, by the Criterion Collection. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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Have you seen this film? Did you like it? Let me know what you thought by email: hello at francewhereyouare dot com or over on social media.
I love to talk cinema!
And when they're closed, I love to talk home cinema. 😉