FILM / The glory that was France: Adam Mars-Jones on propaganda and Les Enfants du Paradis

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The Independent Culture
IN PARIS and Nice, half a century ago, Marcel Carne was directing Les Enfants du Paradis from Jacques Prevert's screenplay, in conditions that somehow combined constraint and freedom. The Vichy government did not allow films longer than 90 minutes, so a large-scale work was lightly disguised as two separate units. Carne's pre-War films with Prevert were banned under the Occupation, so they had to find a different style and subject.

Some contributors were active in the Resistance, though one actor was accused of collaboration and went missing (he was replaced). But in some respects, they were unusually free, and Carne was even able to delay the first screening till after Liberation, so that Les Enfants du Paradis was symbolically disconnected from the period in which it was made.

One consequence of this manipulation of time is that Carne's film, with its cast of seasoned stage actors and its strong theatrical elements, becomes artificially contemporary with work being done in Italy by Rossellini and others, who seized the chance of the breakdown of imposed order to make films that prized immediacy and roughness of edge. Les Enfants du Paradis is inevitably more of a swansong for French cinema of the 1930s, in its worldly romanticism and its airy substance, than an artistic call to arms.

The film is set in period (a little before the middle of the last century) and three of its principal characters have historical models, but there is no way of soundproofing a work of art against the echoes of the present. The crowds we see celebrating on the boulevard in the film's opening sequence, how could they not have felt, while enacting this scene of placid disorder, that they were rehearsing for liberation and its public show?

Perhaps there are more conscious echoes. The subject of collaboration crops up in the screenplay, but only as a fact of literature: the actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur) agrees to appear in a play unworthy of his talents, which has taken the combined efforts of three inadequate authors to write. There is a strange moment during the premiere when Frederick is improvising and hamming it up, refusing in some sense to collaborate with the collaborators. Instead of playing dead, he commandeers a box and embarks on a speech that contains a sort of menace. He seems somehow to have broken free of the inverted commas of what has been written for him, and it is as if he is about to indict someone in the audience. 'Mine was only the arm which carries out orders,' he declaims. 'The hand which strikes, the foot which leaves its tracks in the dust of time . . . but the real criminals, the ones who plotted everything in the background, I point them out to divine justice.' He pounces, but, when the camera shows us who he is indicting, it is only the miserable trio of authors, legitimate collaborators after all. The moment of vertigo is over, and comedy is restored.

The standard argument for a political strand in Les Enfants du Paradis is that Arletty's character Garance, much desired but always her own mistress, represents France. When at the halfway point of the film Garance is forced to invoke the protection of a besotted Count, she surrenders effectively nothing. She won't pretend she loves him, let alone grant more physical favour. If this is France, then she can be Occupied but never owned, since her natural state is of passive Resistance to pressure.

If symbolism is intended, the casting as the most beautiful woman in Paris of an actress then in her mid-forties can be given more than the usual embarrassed defence: the representative of a nation needs to have assets beyond a relentless nubility, and a certain motherliness is hardly out of place. But in practice, no one questions Arletty's rightness, the perfection of her poise. It's true that Garance rhymes with France, but a rhyme is a slender basis for allegory. There is actually more to admire about the role and performance if Garance is seen as part of a French literary tradition devoted to demi- mondaines. Garance is a modified heroine out of Dumas, Gautier or Merimee, just as the character of Lacenaire, historical personage or no historical personage, is a villain out of Balzac.

Garance is a Bohemian woman who will follow her heart without necessarily taking the consequences, just as she can get caught in a rainstorm and not develop a cold, let alone consumption. She just hangs up her (only) dress to dry. She has Carmen's absolutism of heart, but none of her cruelty.

She is associated with mirrors - while on display in a tub at the fair, or sitting at a dressing table in the Count's house - but it is somehow her strength and not a weakness that, while men are gazing at her, she is looking at herself. Her narcissism is subtly protective, and her self-absorption is a form of vigilance. It says, I saw my beauty before you did, so how can you have power over me?

Garance's constant smile, which shows no teeth, is contrasted with the radiant but precarious beaming of Baptiste's devoted Natalie (Maria Casares), an effort of will which collapses when confronted with reality. Garance's smile expresses a particularly female stoicism, since it is through men and their reactions to her that she must negotiate her existence.

Arletty is matched by Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste the mime. On his first appearance, his face powdered white, he looks austere, even full of suffering, but as the performance flowers he delivers not only physical comedy but an extraordinary joy. Even after three hours of screen time, he is finding new things in the part and in himself.

Perhaps the truest reflection of itself that the film contains is this, its choosing as a central character a performer who may not speak on stage. Licence was given to the Theatre des Funambules of the 19th-century, on condition that no word was spoken. The theatre manager in the film who slaps fines on those who break this rule is only standing in for a larger prohibiting authority.

The film suggests, though, that enforced silence is better than imposed speech. Frederick can use his voice, but he is restricted to a society audience, and when he strays from the classics the speeches written for him are intolerable. Baptiste may not be allowed to speak out, but he can communicate just the same, and can cross class barriers, becoming respectable without losing the love of the poorest audience, known as the 'Children of Paradise'. If Les Enfants du Paradis has become similarly loved, it is not in the end because of its political resonance or lack of it, but because, in its emotional opulence, this epic operetta somehow anticipated the taste of liberation from a time of deprivation. It is a voluminous New Look dress miraculously put together from a rationed allowance of clothing coupons.

(Photograph omitted)