Sophie Seydoux remembers the moment her heart almost stopped. The president of the Jerome Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, which had spearheaded an extensive 4K restoration of the 1945 classic Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis), was at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where the movie was about to debut in a pristine new version.
Anticipation was high. Many of the festival attendees — educated and erudite film buffs — had never seen director Marcel Carné’s entrancing love story between a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault) and an actress (Arletty) in 19th century Paris. The introduction of a forgotten classic to a new and eager generation was about to begin.
Then the opening credits rolled.
“There were a lot of young people in the theater, and even after the movie started, they were restless and kept talking,” Seydoux says from Paris. “For the first 10 minutes, I could hear everyone moving in their seats and bags shuffling, and I could tell the audience just wasn’t concentrating. I was thinking ‘Oh my God!’ I was terrified.”
Seydoux, who works with Pathé International cultivating and rescuing silent and classic films in danger of deteriorating, had been personally involved with the restoration of Carné’s film, which was heroic in scope. Three different laboratories throughout Europe worked on restoring the image and sound of the black and white epic, culling the best possible elements from 50 different negatives and poring over each frame of the movie to remove dirt, scratches and imperfections.
But at Cannes, the audience initially didn’t care. Children of Paradise opens with some breathtaking shots of a bustling Boulevard du Temple teeming with artists and clowns and performers — the image is so clear, you can make out the expressions on all the faces in the crowd — but the festival viewers were not impressed.
Then the mime Baptiste enters the film, saving the beautiful Garance from being arrested by performing his silent eyewitness account to a police officer.
Suddenly, the entire audience at the screening sat up and started paying attention.
“Right from that scene, everyone seemed to be enchanted and happy and applauding after certain performances,” Seydoux says. “By the end of the screening, the film got a standing ovation. It’s always wonderful when people discover an old movie that may be new to them and can appreciate why it’s considered a classic.”
Shot in 1943 during World War II, Children of Paradise overcame so many seemingly impossible obstacles that today the film seems enchanted. Storms destroyed the elaborate sets in Nice. The filmmakers were forced by German authorities to relocate to Paris in the middle of production. Alexandre Trauner, who designed the film’s elaborate theatrical sets, and composer Joseph Kosma, who wrote the score, worked on the film in secret and had to be credited under pseudonyms because they were Jewish. Nazi collaborators and Resistance fighters commingled peacefully as extras; some of the crowd shots include 2,000 actors. The average film budget at the time was between five and eight million francs. Children of Paradise cost more than 25 million francs.
Seydoux says that when the film was completed and released shortly after the end of the war, it became a symbol of freedom.
“The movie had a huge impact on France, because it was so big and luxurious, and yet Carné had somehow managed to make it during the war. It inspired people.”
So why, then, has the movie not endured? Blame Francois Truffaut. With its highly stylized look, theatrical sets and intentionally broad performances, Children of Paradise was dismissed as obsolete claptrap by the brash crop of young French critics and filmmakers who would go on to form the New Wave in the 1960s and rebel against what had come before.
“Once Truffaut and the New Wave directors became popular, they lambasted [screenwriter] Jacques Prevért as being old-fashioned and bad, and the reputation stuck to the movie,” says Trae DeLellis, a professor of motion picture studies at the University of Miami and director of the school’s Bill Cosford Cinema. “It’s weird how many people today have still never seen it. I myself only watched it after reading Truffaut’s article that attacked the movie. He made me curious.”
Later in his career, Truffaut recanted his critique, saying he would gladly swap one of his movies in order to be able to take credit for Carné’s film.
And although the film is scheduled for re-release on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in the fall, you haven’t really seen Children of Paradise until you’ve seen it projected in a theater, where the large screen does justice to the deep-focus compositions, the elaborate art design and the transporting beauty of the movie.
“Children of Paradise is one of my favorite films of all time,” says Robert Rosenberg, director of the Coral Gables Art Cinema. “When I was living in New York in the 1980s, I went to the theater to see it four times. People haven’t had a chance to see it the way it was meant to be seen until now. It’s an epic, three-hour film, and to be able to see it in this restored version is like going to church; it’s a religious experience.”
Cast: Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Maria Casares, Pierre Renoir, Étienne Decroux.
Director: Marcel Carné.
Screenwriter: Jacques Prévert.
A Pathé and Janus Films release. Running time: 190 minutes with intermission. In French with English subtitles. No offensive material. Opens Friday May 18 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.