From the archive
Children of Paradise, which Jacques Prevert and Marcel Carne produced and directed in France during the war, is close to perfection of its kind and I very much like its kind—the highest kind of slum-glamor romanticism about theater people and criminals, done with strong poetic feeling, with rich theatricality, with a great delight and proficiency in style, and with a kind of sophistication which merely cleans and curbs, rather than killing or smirking behind the back of its more powerful and vulgar elements. All the characters are a little larger and a good deal more wonderful than life—a mime of genius, a fine florid actor, an egomaniacal criminal, a cold great-gentleman, and the hypnotic gutter-beauty whom they all pursue and, after their varying fashions, possess. The story has a similar slight over-ripe grandiloquence—a many-triangled study of love and love’s numerous poor-relations, it works the world-as-stage-and-vice versa cliche for all it is worth and does so always with as much elegance and irony as intensity and commitment. The Chaplinesque mime (Jean-Louis Barrault) is the only depiction of an artist, on the screen, which has fully convinced me of the genius he was supposed to have. Arletty, who plays the female beanbag, is almost as good at making that symbol definitive. The great actor is a little short of size; so is the criminal; so perhaps is the sporting nobleman although he outdid anyone else I have ever seen try it; but on their slightly smaller scale they too are perfect, as is the woman who wrecks the mime’s life through her “selfless” love for him—and I suspect that this scaling-down was calculated exactly as it turns out. The miming itself is breath-taking, and there is some flirtatious repartee which delighted me more in its way than anything since the fruitier exchanges in Dumas when I read them at the age of eleven; indeed the whole sexuality of the picture, which assumes that the audience knows all about where babies come from and a good deal about how uniquely dangerous the preliminary activities can be, makes one want to forage through Hollywood and various censors’ offices as a sort of improved, not to say dedicated, Jack the Ripper. I do suspect that unless you have a considerable weakness for romanticism, which I assume includes a weakness for the best of its ham, this will seem just a very fancy, skillful movie. But if you have that lucky weakness, I think the picture can be guaranteed to make you very happily drunk.