Works like Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830) and Han d’Islande (1823), Frédéric Soulié’s Les Mémoires du Diableand (1838), Charles Nodier’s La Fée aux Miettes (1832), and indeed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830), all came to typify this emerging trope of Romanticism. Philosopher’s such as Denis Diderot wrote progressively about musical aesthetics, a primary focus of which was on artistic creation, notions of genius, and physical responses to music. ”…Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild… Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things….One declaims endlessly against the passions; one imputes all of man’s suffering to them. One forgets that they are also the source of all his pleasures.” , he was quoted as saying.
The painter Charles-Antoine Coypel, a little earlier, wrote that `the Rules of Declamation are needed for Painting, to reconcile the gesture with the expression on the face […] by the lively expression of the gestures and actions that mutes ordinarily use to make themselves understood.
A dreamy tenderness, irresistible verve, regulated vehemence and an almost morbid melancholy. Such were the times of the 1820’s where Marcel carne’s film Children of Paradise was set; a high-water mark of the Golden Age of French cinema that reflected all the enigma’s contradictions of the richest embodiments of romantic agony in 20th-century art. is still one of the finest French films ever made: an exemplar of classical filmmaking, great acting, and a perfectly constructed screenplay that showed the awakening of a world, a new industrial age world of feeling, sensations and spiritual drunkenness. What Hector Berlioz saw as music as an art that ”sets in vibration the most unexplored depths of the human soul”. An era of extreme subjectivity where formal considerations were slackened at the behest of a poetic idea, which in the case of Berlioz, isolated music from the sphere of its own logic in order to subordinate it to an extra-musical concept.
A fresco conceived on a majestic scale, Children of Paradise sweeps its audience back to the 1820s, painting the detail of a world obsessed with both theater and crime. The original screenplay by Jacques Prévert drew its inspiration from such colorful personalities of the period as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the innovative mime; Pierre-François Lacenaire, a murderer who went to the scaffold; and Frédérick Lemaître, a celebrated actor for whom both Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote plays. Jean-Louis Barrault, fascinated by the character of Deburau , urged Prévert to develop a story around him. The result was a tightly plotted narrative dominated by the fictional figure of Garance , a woman who arouses the passion and envy of the film’s four leading men….
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement lies in its evocation of a vanished epoch, a “lost paradise” of Proustian proportions. The costumes and sets by Alexandre Trauner and the music of Joseph Kosma contribute to a vivid, teeming environment that enables Children of Paradise to transcend the theatrical circles in which it moves. Both men, incidentally, had to work anonymously to conceal their Jewish origins from the authorities.
Gesture was a blossoming aesthetic genre in Paris at the time: sign-language had been established in the previous century and was becoming more widespread; mime exploded with Gaspard Deburau’s Theatre des Funambles; and, with Habeneck and especially the aforementioned flamboyant Berlioz, whose conducting developed a new vocabulary of gestures. This gestural movement was inexorably wedded to the social concerns with gender ambiguity.
”… is symptomatic of an aesthetic genre that emerged in Paris between the last decade of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries. Throughout these fifty or so years there was incredible interest in the aesthetics and pathology of the body, of gesture, of movement, and in a philosophical search for a universal `biological’ language. In artistic spheres this became manifest in the search for the embodiment and physicality of genius, an exploration of the relationships between abstract inspiration and a very physical, often uncontrollable, bodily reaction… emerging French theories of inspired gesture, sign language, the divided-self of the Romantic artist, and the concept of the genius as a bodily, not abstract, phenomenon. ”
Children of Paradise captures this rhetoric of inspiration; of genius, madness, enthusiasm, possession, the sublime, and, the examination of all these within the bodily, anatomical spheres that mime and the theatre could represent. The seeds of the absurdist projections of Alfred Jarry for example. Objective, technical considerations were subordinate to its effect on emotions. Francesca Brittan notes an example of Berlioz’s intensity of expression and musical response:
Oh, if only I did not suffer so much!… So many musical ideas are seething within me […] I feel it with an intense energy, and I shall do it, have no doubt, if I live. Oh, must my entire destiny be engulfed by this overpowering passion?… Everything I’ve suffered would enhance my musical ideas. I would work non-stop… my powers would be tripled, a whole new world of music would spring fully armed from my brain, or rather, from my heart.
This passage not only outlines a rhetoric of a sublime overwhelming passion, but also an important dichotomy around the conditions for artistic endeavour. This dichotomy is essentially between the rational and the irrational, inspired genius and technical craftsmanship, and was debated intensively at the turn of the nineteenth century, and is central to an understanding of the period.
The beginning of an epoch where artistic content by the artist is a reflection of their own ego; the classic prototypes of the narcissistic, neurotic artist who releases suppressed emotion as creatures of his imagination, where the pleasurable gratification pacifies the pain and agony enough to allow these dark forces to emerge from the shadowland and rejoice in the contradictions of the light of day and its infinite artistic explorations under the heading of “ego exploration”. “the 19th century was intensely preoccupied with the self, to the point of neurosis. During the very decades of the most sustained campaign for master of the world ever undertaken, bourgeois devoted much delightful and perhaps even more anxious time to introspection.” ( Peter Gay )
From Peter Cowie’s review: ”Garance refuses to compromise with a world of decadence and deception. Just when each of her suitors appears to have ensnared her, she glides away like some tantalizing ideal, eventually disappearing into the symbolic crowds along the Boulevard of Crime. During the several years covered by the film, she moves from poverty to affluence, never sacrificing her principles or her open-minded vision of love. If “love is so simple,” according to Garance’s refrain, its ramifications prove infinitely more allusive and subtle the further the film advances. Children of Paradise may be described as one long aching ode to melancholy, but it never descends into mawkish sentimentality. Carné and Prévert know exactly when to leaven their narrative with witty interludes, and much of the verbal sparring inspired Bergman in films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician.
Nothing is quite what it seems. The borderline between stage drama and real life dissolves in sequence after sequence. Each of the principals shows a “mask” to the world, exemplified in one of the very first tableaus—Garance as a fairground attraction, seated in a barrel of water, holding a mirror up to herself and looking for all the world like some Mona Lisa as men come to ogle her as the embodiment of “Truth.” For Baptiste, his disguise is the whey-faced makeup of the mime. For Lemaître, it’s the black-painted image of Othello one moment, or an eye-patched villain the next; even under threat, this vain yet lovable actor dissolves the tension with his sardonic wit. For the count who seduces Garance with his wealth and elegance, it’s the immaculate grooming of hair and beard. For Lacenaire, it’s the dandified coiffure and the frilly shirt that give a perverse elegance to his assassin’s features. Even the blind beggar is but a charlatan, up to his eyes in petty larceny.
Although the film works perfectly well at a surface level, every character, every gesture, springs from a coded approach to contemporary history. Garance, with her stalwart commitment to liberty and the simple things of life, represents Occupied France. The count serves as a chilling paradigm for the Nazi regime, believing that his opulence can purchase anything in sight. Jéricho is the archetypal informer, flourishing in the atmosphere of confusion and mistrust of the Boulevard of Crime. The art of Baptiste, and to some extent Frédérick, seems to encapsulate a folkloric tradition that touches the people at a profound level. Lacenaire awaits what will certainly be a visit to the guillotine with a smile of malevolent gratification on his lips, after dispatching the count in a Turkish bath. At once anarchist and career criminal, he exists to undermine the established order.
Just as the historical and political overtones of the film enable Carné and Prévert to pass oblique judgment on France under the Nazi yoke, so the erotic mood of the film is unusually ambiguous. Carné’s own homosexuality, at a time when diversity was not exactly welcomed in the movie industry, finds its metaphor in Baptiste and his androgynous appeal. Baptiste is attracted to Garance not just for her physical beauty, but for her statuesque strength in the face of condescension from the men surrounding her. When they do finally make love, one has the impression that Baptiste is succumbing to the embrace of Garance, and not vice versa.