“Children of Paradise,” directed by Marcel Carné, is currently playing at Film Forum through March 27.

A rapturous dream of cinema, the epic romantic tragedy “Children of Paradise” (1945) is justly considered by many to be the greatest French film ever made, a miracle of production and execution that continues to captivate with the beauty of its images, the economy and grace of its dialogue, and the drama of its onscreen and offscreen mythology. Filmed during the Nazi occupation of France and released soon after its liberation, it is set in the bohemian milieu of the early nineteenth century Parisian theatre scene and tells the story of four men obsessed with a mysterious courtesan.

Marketed upon its initial Americana release as a French “Gone With the Wind,” it is actually closer in style and soul to “Casablanca,” both black-and-white examples of the “poetic realism” genre that director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert helped create and perfect in the 30’s and early 40’s, of which “Children of Paradise” is considered its crowning achievement. Shifting effortlessly between the dives and tenements of the Boulevard du Crime, the sordid squabbles and grand illusions of the theater, and staid grandeur of the aristocracy, the film is nearly unrivaled in the depth with which it reconstructs its panoramic sense of time and place.

When the actor Frederic says, “I'm dying of silence, like others die of hunger and thirst,” he speaks of a generation of citizens and artists silenced by years of total war and state terror, members of the film’s cast and crew and others whose voices would be heard no more. In this production, where members of the French Resistance worked alongside Vichy sympathizers, the composer and production designer were Jews who were forced to toil in secret, and shooting was suspended when the producer was kicked off the film by the government for his remote Jewish ancestry. One actor had to be replaced when he fled a death sentence passed by the Resistance for collaborating with the Nazis, while Arletty (who plays the film’s heroine Garance) rebutted accusations of collaboration for having an affair with a German officer by proclaiming “My heart is French but my ass is international.” As the mime Baptiste (devastatingly played by Jean-Louis Barrault) says, “You were right, Garance. Love is simple.”

 

Mixing history and fiction with ironic sophistication, famed poet Prévert peppers his heartsick script with bon-mots like “Shut up! We can't hear the pantomime!” and “Not only are you rich, but you want to be loved as if you are poor.” Keenly aware of its moment in history and the significance of their project, the film’s creators guided France’s most expensive production to date through a dangerous eighteen month shoot to furnish their nation with a lavish cinematic gift in commemoration of its regained freedom. The title itself speaks to this populist intent and desire for liberty, the eponymous paradise referring to the cheap gallery seats where the common people came to vociferate their approval and condemnation of the performers on stage; the audience, its children, longing for a vanished republic of art and finding it in the cinema, its most democratic form.

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