Masterpiece from France now on DVDs

Critic's Choice: Film

March 03, 2002|By Michael Sragow

Those who have never seen "Children of Paradise" -- the crowning glory of French classical moviemaking -- have a grand opportunity to experience it in close-to-ideal conditions on the Criterion Collection's new double-disc DVD set. (The ideal, of course, would be to see this most theatrical of movies on film, in a theater.)

Written by poet-screenwriter Jacques Prevert and directed by Marcel Carne, this surging historical romance, set in the 1820s, is about Parisian theater life -- or rather, it's about Paris, theater and life.

Prevert and Carne fictionalize three of the biggest celebrities of "the Boulevard of Crime" -- the mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), the actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) and the philosophical murderer Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) -- and involve them in an obsession with a gorgeous demimondaine named Garance (Arletty).

The characters are grand, the plot prismatic and the emotional weave as transporting as the Thief of Bagdad's magic rug. There's too much here to relish all at once, from Prevert's impassioned language and Carne's eloquently detailed storytelling (who can forget Lacenaire's blinding white shirts?) to the indelible performances, especially those of the ebullient Brasseur and the melancholy-tinged Arletty.

The filmmakers explore the intersection of love and art with such lyrical avidity and craft that when they invoke Shakespeare, the movie stands up to the comparison. Going back to the film as you grow older, you may find yourself shifting allegiance from one character to another.

Prevert and Carne arrive at their own version of Shakespeare's Ages of Man -- and, thanks to Arletty, of Woman, too.

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