Long considered one of the great films of all time, Marcel Carné's epic drama now gets its finest treatment, courtesy of Criterion. And it is wonderful.
Highly recommended, and one of my top ten releases of 2012.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A+
It's difficult to know exactly where to start when discussing Marcel Carné's sweeping 190-minute French classic Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis), because I'm not sure if I should talk about the film or the backstory of the production. Both are equally fascinating, and like an ouroboros the elements feed off one another to mutually create a complete circle that combined give this film not only its surface appeal but an historical context.
Released in 1945, one Carné's largest hurdles on Children of Paradise was clearly the restrictive constraints during the German occupation of France during World War II; add to this the Vichy administration requirement that all films be no longer than 90 minutes forced the production to be split into two parts. The by-product of this are the two uniquely different halves that make the whole, with the almost exuberant pacing and structure of the first half (The Boulevard of Crime) a direct contrast the more somber and heartfelt revelations in the second half (The Man in White).
At its most base level the Jacques Prévert screenplay reminds us that "love is simple", or so the many players (four of which are based on actual historical characters) seem to wish. The problem is that it appears anything but, as the theater world of early 19th century Paris is the hectic location for an interwoven series of relationships that all seem precariously hinged upon one another. At the center is the lovely Garance (Arletty), the sexually liberal firebrand that is the dramatic fulcrum, the single character who (directly or indirectly) impacts the lives of nearly everyone in the story, including an actor (Pierre Brasseur), a scoundrel (Marcel Herrand), a count (Louis Salou) and a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault). But that is a simplistic thumbnail of Children of Paradise, because the beauty of Carné's direction and Prévert's screenplay is the complexity of the many relationships, and the ripples - no matter how small - they all seem to cause.
The story is wide and deep, with more beneath the surface than what appears initially. Stage productions within the screenplay mimic the realities of the characters, sexual identities are masked delicately, yet for all of Garance's undeniable influence and appeal it is the performance of Jean-Louis Barrault as the love-torn mime Baptiste that gives Children of Paradise something truly outstanding. The film's final moments - a veritable cast of thousands sequence - is frantic, tragic and heartbreaking, with Barrault's Baptiste literally swimming against an unforgiving current. It's really an epic-scale sequence, with Carné pulling back to reveal the scope of Baptiste's futility, and it is an emotional doozy.
If you have never seen Children of Paradise you are missing an undisputed classic. This new BD Criterion is a revelation, and the film has never looked or sounded better. See this, and see it now. There are subtle machinations aplenty here - some more so than others - enough to give repeated viewings completely new levels of appreciation. In her review of the 2002 Criterion SD dOc's own head mistress debi lee mandel nailed it perfectly:
"The genius of Les Enfants du paradis is in the recurring themes, the poetic yet economical dialogue by Prévert and the unique mise-en-scénes of Carné. While the importance of this film is well documented, it doesn't take a scholarly discourse to appreciate it: It is easily the most accessible of the great cinematic triumphs in the first century of the medium. It will seduce you again and again, once you realize the potency - and prophecy - of its dialectic."
Indeed. What she said.
Don't be mislead by some of the less-than-flattering reviews of the image quality on this BD from Criterion, because I'm here to tell you what's here is well above bar. The 1.37:1 transfer is the 2011 Pathé restoration, painstakingly created from the original nitrate negative and a pair of nitrate masters that were scanned at 4k resolution. That's to say nothing of the detailed work done to remove mold, tape residue, nicks, scratches, as well as reproducing missing frames from other sources. Nitpickers have condemned the frequent softness of certain scenes, and while the softness is certainly noticeable and contrast levels fluctuate periodically one has to take the restoration as a whole, done on a film from 1945 that due to external elements (how about the Nazi occupation?) was shot on a variety of less than pristine "scrap stock". The restorative work done here is nearly as epic as Children of Paradise itself, and to deconstruct the technical aspects of this transfer critically is simply absurd. For the doubters, there are many moments - such as Arletty's glittery veil - that are truly breathtaking.
Audio is available in an uncompressed 1.0 French mono track culled from the original sound negative, and while one does not expect much in the way of grandiose fidelity the mix is clean, with no evidence of hiss or crackle.
Some of the material on this 2 BD set has been ported over from the 2002 Criterion SD. Inside the case is a 38-page booklet containing an essay, a transcribed interview and information on the restoration. While restoration/transfer info is self-explanatory the essay consists of The Romance of Children of Paradise by Dudley Andrew and Carné on Children of Paradise is a 1990 interview with the director conducted by Brian Stonehill.
Disc one contains the film along with a pair of scholarly commentaries. The aforementioned Brian Stonehill - recorded in 1991 - covers part one (The Boulevard of Crime) and Charles Affron - recorded in 2000 - discusses part two (The Man In White). Both tracks are essay style, meaning the commentators read from prepared material for the duration. Though it can seem somewhat dry at first I tend to prefer this approach, as generally the content is well-researched and minutely detailed. That's the case here from both Stonehill and Affron, making these tracks (especially Stonehill's) worth your time.
Disc two carries a Terry Gilliam Introduction (05m:14s), with the director in 1998 proclaiming his spoilery love for Children of Paradise and its influence on his own work. Probably the highlight for me is the brief segment Restoration Demonstration (04m:16s) which offers side-by-side comparisons of the remarkable work done to (surprise!) restore this film to its present condition, and one only has to look at the included U.S. trailer (03m:18s) to have this reinforced by your own eyeballs.
There are also three lengthy features, including the 2009 making-of Once Upon A Time: Children of Paradise (51m:15s), The Look of Children of Paradise (22m:12s) from 2012 that examines the visual design of the film and The Birth of Children of Paradise (01h:03m:33s), a 1967 documentary containing interviews with Carné, Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and others.