The Feel of the Rope

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Published on September 17th, 2012 | by Brian Doan


“Children of Paradise” (Marcel Carné, 1945)

“Children of Paradise” and “Les visiteurs du soir” are now available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

As “Children of Paradise” begins, the curtain-within-the-frame rises on director Marcel Carné’s vision of 1830s Boulevard du Crime, the theatrical district within which much of the film’s action will be set. The first image behind the curtain is a long shot of a tightrope walker, his walrus mustache like a center point against the light gray sky, its ends pushing downward as further ballast against the bounciness of the rope. His right arm curves upward like an elephant’s trunk and is matched by the downward curve of his left leg, making him look like an ornate human coffee table turned sideways. Behind him looms Aux Lionceaux du Temple, a cabaret that will figure later in the narrative, and around him is a crowd transfixed by the spectacle, except for one woman in a bonnet on the left side of the frame who completely ignores the tightrope walker and instead seems to be staring out directly at the film’s viewers.

When “Children of Paradise” premiered in Paris on March 9, 1945, its audience had only recently been liberated from the German Occupation, and they greeted the film rapturously: despite a 190-minute running time (the film was sometimes shown in two parts) and a doubled ticket price, “Children of Paradise” played to huge crowds for fifty-four straight weeks. Carné had deliberately slowed down production when news of the Normandy invasion reached the production, theorizing, as film scholar Ben McCann puts it, “that rather than being the last film of the Occupation, ‘Les enfants du paradis’ could be the first film of the Liberation.” Often cited as the high-water mark of French Poetic Realism, its success was both a triumph for Carné and his two chief collaborators, screenwriter Jacques Prévert and designer Alexandre Trauner, and an impossible feat to re-create: Carné would work once more with Prévert and twice more with Trauner before the team went their separate ways. The bonnet-wearing woman sharing the frame with a gaudy spectacle therefore becomes a marker of so much that the film embodies: the split between stylized play and realism; the self-referentiality that breaks the fourth wall fifteen years before the New Wave that will mock Carné and Prévert as “le cinéma de papa”; a figure whose lack of identification reinforces “Children’s” own ambiguous authorial signature; and a hard, unsmiling, rapidly disappearing face whose stare tells the audience that the world of “Children,” and the world of the film’s creation, will soon fade in the same fashion.

“Children of Paradise”

And what a world Carné, Prévert, Trauner, and their extraordinary cast created! We drift across nineteenth-century Paris and its theatrical spaces, where crime narratives play out on and off stage; we encounter Arletty, mesmerizing in both her charm and defiant in her neediness; we’re carried by dollies full of energy that move us across emotions as well as spaces, jolting us; we pause on exquisite close-ups; track through crowds so full of life you will never catch everything; float on crane shots that scramble the fantastic and the everyday, revealing a world of artificiality and intense realism. The writing, too, moves like a dream: Prévert’s script is justly celebrated for its poetic dialogue (what Dudley Andrew calls “lyrical voices expressing themselves floridly in duets, trios, and quartets”), but what draws me in is the film’s digressive quality, the radical experimentalism of its narrative as much as, in Andrew’s phrase, its “elegant, geometric plot”: people walk in and out without introduction, character takes precedent over story, there are almost anecdotal incidents rather than a linear plot, and it all slowly coalesces around tone and image, not letting theme get in the way of cinephilic joy. For a film marked as a model of French cinematic classicism, “Children of Paradise” feels, sixty-seven years later, like a series of disguised film experiments, evoking Jean-Luc Godard as much as Victor Hugo; its proto-post-modernism is everything Robert Altman dreamed of, but with a graceful poetics that suggests that Carné and his collaborators were holding multitudes in reserve, like master magicians waiting to reveal even more tricks. In his excellent DVD booklet essay, Andrew quotes André Bazin’s disappointment when first viewing the film in 1945: “Paradoxically, this huge fresco, on which four or five different narrative destinies are interwoven, seems incomplete,” a mournful observation that is entirely correct, but now feels less like a problem, and more like an enticement.

New editions of “Children of Paradise,” and an earlier Carné film, “Les visiteurs du soir” (1942) are being released this week on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. The transfers are gorgeous, and it’s wonderful to finally have “Les visiteurs”—the tale of two of Satan’s envoys, who descend upon a castle in the fifteenth century in order to wreak havoc, and end up finding love—finally available on disc. It offers the chance to not only revisit two brilliant films, but to think about the questions of viewing and reception that the movies themselves, and Criterion’s copious extras, repeatedly offer (“Children” carries over the audio commentaries, Terry Gilliam introduction, theatrical trailer, and interview with Carné from its 2002 DVD, replaces Peter Cowie’s 2002 booklet essay with one by Dudley Andrew, and adds two informative documentaries about the film and a film essay by critic Paul Ryan; “Les visiteurs” includes a thirty-eight-minute documentary about the film, a trailer from the period, and a booklet essay by Michael Atkinson). There’s a fascinating relationship between the movies themselves and the way that material is framed by the histories the supplements provide, a balancing act as tricky as the one that introduces us to The Boulevard of Crime.

“Children of Paradise”

In another scene in “Children,” Baptiste—a mime played with the perfect balance of tragedy and humor by Jean-Louis Barrault—is enacting his doomed romantic desires in a theatrical pantomime at the theater Les Funambules. Another man has seduced the object of his character’s love, and feeling suicidal, he grabs a rope and begins to make a noose. Suddenly, a little girl skips on stage, and gestures for the rope; Baptiste takes it off the tree, hands it to her, and watches as she skips rope. She hands it back to him, and he strings it up again, only to encounter a washerwoman, who also gestures for the rope, and uses it to string up her laundry. It’s a darkly humorous moment reminiscent of Chaplin: every time our hero tries to escape the world, he’s thwarted by other people’s needs, a series of annoyances that ends up saving his life.

If we chose to read the rope as a metaphor for cinema (and “Children” is a film overwhelmed by allegorical readings), we might take this scene as emblematic of three uses of the form for Carné and his collaborators: weapon, object of play, and tool for display. Each offers a way into thinking about “Children,” “Les visiteurs,” and the stories and historical pantomimes that swirl around them.

Cinema as Weapon: One of “Children”‘s best supplements, a 1967 German documentary called “The Birth of ‘Children of Paradise,’” intercuts interviews with the surviving members of the production team with interviews with “le jeune cinéma”:  members of the French New Wave and associated directors who comment on the film, and wrestle with their own Oedipal relationships to French cinema’s past. Claude Lelouch walks into his office smoking, holding his newspaper out at just the right angle, like Jean-Pierre Léaud in “Masculin Féminin,” valorizing his own moment and calling Carné a dictator. Agnès Varda calls “Children” a film whose greatest theme is that of light; she plays with her bejeweled fingers, and says she watches the film all the time, knowing it will make her cry. François Truffaut never mentions Carné’s name, but praises Jacques Prévert, saying no one like him exists in 1967 French cinema, and he cross-references “Children” with other films like the master critic he still is. Jacques Demy has the shining face and nervous sitting habits of an eager undergraduate; he gushes over the film, connects it to Flaubert and Balzac, and says we undervalue the past. Louis Malle sits calmly, somehow rakish in his cardigan (cigarette perfectly held in his right hand), and is the only director who seems to dissect the film without a particular position to argue, even as he suggests the movie is like the Arc de Triomphe (the bar he sits near is shaped like an elephant).

“Les visiteurs du soir” (Marcel Carné, 1945)

Engaging with the work of Marcel Carné means thinking in puns as rich and knotty as those in Prévert’s scripts, circling around questions of “collaboration,” identity, and landscapes both real and imagined. The extras on both “Children” and “Les visiteurs” skip across three fraught periods. The first is the Occupation, when making films was inextricably intertwined with the Vichy regime, and decisions were often literally life and death. The extras on both films are full of anecdotes about their productions that are alternately terrifying, moving, and bleakly hilarious—how filmmakers struggled to work ethically in a film industry controlled by the Vichy, and created alternative forms of production and distribution; how Carné insisted on pseudonymously using banned Jewish collaborators on each film; how Prévert and Arletty did their best to protect friends and collaborators from the Gestapo; how Carné cast one role because the woman was a baker, and would provide the cast and crew with daily croissants in a period of intense deprivation. In this setting, “Les visiteurs” and “Children” are triumphs of the imagination against oppression, as one form of “collaboration” overcomes the efforts of another, far more sinister kind.

The second period is that of post-war Paris, when collaboration—in both the aesthetic and political senses—was marked with suspicion. Both Carné and Arletty were marked as “collaborators” by the post-war French government—Carné had signed a contract with Vichy-controlled Continental Films (under duress and false pretexts, as the documentary on “Les visiteurs” points out, and one he got out of when he realized its restrictions), and Arletty had dated a German officer throughout the Occupation (“My heart is French, but my ass is international,” she famously said at her trial). While both would recuperate their political reputations and continue to work in the fifties and sixties, la politique des auteurs would go after Carné for a different kind of collaboration, claiming (in the words of François Truffaut) that “For years we’ve been offered films by Jacques Prévert, set to images by Marcel Carné.” In “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” Truffaut would famously sneer, “Prévert is to be regretted” (although, as Dudley Andrew pointed out, Truffaut continued to valorize “Children,” which he saw eight times). The 1967 documentary captures this divided response well, as the younger generation struggles with simultaneous admiration for the older filmmakers’ achievements, and an intense need to distance themselves from it.  The question of signatures—who is responsible for what, and what such division means—becomes paramount.

“Les visiteurs du soir”

Forty years later, these two periods interact with each other in the scholarship on the films, and blend in the supplements with a renewed interest in the hidden meanings of the texts themselves: queer readings, psychoanalytic readings of biography, and the films’ wider connections to melodramatic traditions take precedence. All of these approaches are valuable and enlightening, and at the same time, fall prey to the notion that a clear, logical framework can explain the films’ wonderfully strange qualities. There’s a sense of density, play, and emotional uncertainty that unfolds when Jules Berry’s Devil shows up midway through “Les visiteurs” to punish his intransigent envoys, gleefully standing before the dancing flames of the fireplace, and ironically chastising the castle’s denizens for (like, perhaps, a movie audience) “not knowing why they laugh”; or when, in “Les visiteurs,” Alain Cuny’s envoy—now chained up in the castle dungeon—sings to his love as shafts of light play across his face, casting him in and out of shadow; or when Frederick (Pierre Brasseur) hijacks a cheap melodrama mid-performance and improvises his own narrative, much to the theater audience’s delight, a gesture that will predict all of the self-reflexive play of “le jeune cinéma.”

Cinema as Play: All of which suggests that the work of Carné and Prévert holds within itself both the seeds of a sometimes-limiting allegory (for the Occupation, for authorial identity, for a contemporary cultural politics) and also a tonal play that constantly calls such frameworks into question. I mentioned above that sense of narrative digression in Prévert’s work, and it’s matched by Carné’s mise-en-scène (what Dudley Andrew, paraphrasing Peter Brook, calls melodrama’s gift of an “aesthetically superior world, where everything turns on a phrase, on the color of a gown, on the presence or absence of the moon”). In both “Les visiteurs” and “Children,” visual and emotional perspective is celebrated even as it’s called into question. “Les visiteurs” uses the opaque faces of Cuny and Arletty brilliantly, letting their blank beauty become a canvas on which we can paint any number of emotions (and, when Cuny falls in love with the royal daughter played by Marie Déa, letting that opacity crack into a shining ardor). It also has fun with cinematic trickery—freeze-frames, cut frames, stop-motion and super-impositions highlight the ironic relationship between movie magic and “the devil’s work” it is being deployed to illustrate. Although occasionally heavy-handed—especially compared to the verve, wit, and confidence of “Children”—“Les visiteurs” predicts at least two threads of future cinematic modernism: that of Jean Cocteau (who was in the early running to be the film’s costume designer), and Michelangelo Antonioni (who worked as an uncredited cameraman on the film, and who was clearly influenced by its slow, long takes).

In comparison, “Children” feels light as a feather, despite its doubled length and epic scope. From its opening crane shot, it has a confidence that’s overwhelming, and its faith in itself means that it can embrace its seeming contradictions without shame: it is novelistic and anecdotal; epic and intimate; fatalistic and richly funny; driven by words that are undercut by its imagery; and at once deeply romantic and constantly ironic. It thrives because it always seems willing to unravel itself and become something new: love story, social satire, crime thriller, or theatrical history. Dudley Andrew calls it “geometric,” but it might be more accurate to say it is kaleidoscopic, a tableau that seems to move with the rapidity of the scrolling backdrops of Les Funambules. Like its characters, we think we understand what we are seeing, until a sudden shift thrillingly calls everything into question.

“Les visiteurs du soir”

Cinema as Display: Amidst the rich landscapes—historical, visual, and emotional—of both films, is it enough to simply bear witness, (in “Les visiteurs,” for example, when Cuny and Déa escape their dungeon through a trick of film editing, and wander freely in the countryside)? Or does such witness, attempting to escape allegory like the couple escape their chains, merely leave us in the position of “Children”‘s Baptiste, buffeted by a crowd of Pierrots as his love escapes in a carriage?

Perhaps the answer lies in a film that was released just before Carné and Prévert’s wartime work: Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939). Like “Les visiteurs,” “Rules” is about two intruders at a country estate; like “Les visiteurs,” it takes place in the space of just a few days, but seems to encompass a whole history in its brief moments; like “Les visiteurs,” it views its central love doomed, and all forms of nobility something towards which one should have an ironic attitude. But the films feel remarkably different: Renoir uses his love of tracking shots, close-ups, and deep focus photography as a form of revelation, creating a stylized space that feels improvised.

Against this use of the “plastic” to achieve the “real,” the wartime work of Carné and Prévert represents a more hyper-stylized and fantastic form of poetic display, one whose highly choreographed imagery is sometimes set in negative relief to Renoir’s, and read as more deterministic. But we would be wise to remember Octave’s famous line at the beginning of “Rules”: “There is one awful thing in this life, and that is that everyone has their reasons.” In one supplement, Bertrand Tavernier notes the symbiotic nature of the Carné/Prévert collaboration, the brilliance of Prévert’s poetry when set against Carné’s “extraordinary découpage.” Prévert worked with many legendary filmmakers (including Renoir, on “The Crime of M. Lange,” which also starred Jules Berry), but it is against Carné’s exquisite mise-en-scène that the writer’s own blend of liberalism and fatalism is best displayed. That relationship, the work it generated, and its cultural aftermath (aesthetic and political) are explored in the post-hoc reasoning of the film’s supplements, each element given constantly shifting weight, each balancing precariously on the bouncy wires of the movies themselves. What remains in “Les visiteurs” and “Children” is the profound sense of generosity on display, and how bustlingly diverse their spaces are; their ambiguity of meaning opens up to multiplicities of reading and pleasure. In this framework, this art of display is less a gesture of avoidance than one of democracy in the face of the determinisms. We look, we explore, and like the characters in both films, we are renewed.

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