A film which regularly charts high in critics' polls of the best films of all time, director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert's masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis
is as solid a landmark in French film history as the Eiffel Tower is on the Parisian landscape. And at 187 minutes running time, it's a massy edifice indeed, built from a rambunctious cast of characters--ranging from pickpockets and prostitutes to aristocrats and actors--whose lives intersect around the Theatre des Funambules, a popular Parisian theatre on the Boulevard du Crime, during the 1840s. (The title refers to the poor who can only afford seats in the upper galleries of the theatre.)
The heart of the plot is a love story between mime artiste Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and streetwalker Garance (the magnificent, sand-paper-voiced Arletty). When Garance is falsely accused of pickpocketing, Baptiste provides a mimed alibi for her to the police (one of the film's most famous set pieces). The rose she later throws him in gratitude sets off a romantic obsession, one of several that structure the film, as do love triangles, duels, and tortured confessions of feeling.
Thematically, Les Enfant du Paradis gnaws over typically French cinematic preoccupations: illusion and reality, the nature of performance, the indomitable spirit of the proletariat and so on, all made the more charged and poignant when you know the film was shot during the Nazi occupation. (One actor, Robert Le Vigan, was reportedly a Nazi collaborator and disappeared during the filming under mysterious circumstances and so had to be replaced by Pierre Renoir.) --Leslie Felperin