Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless
As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other. The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people. Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one. It isn’t.
It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind. It also isn’t.
What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.
The plot is noteworthy . Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her. Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count. Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain. The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one. The only person who dies richly deserves it.
The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.
Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise. The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared. He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).
Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France. It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France. Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.
So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it. It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.