When a movie gets high praise the expectations gets similarly high and so also the bar for success. Frankly it ruins the experience because you cannot get that “nice surprise” you might get from a movie you expected nothing from. In some cases it actually does not matter because the movie is as good as it is. “Citizen Kane” and “Gone with the Wind” are such examples, but more often than not I end up disappointed with films that got good critics simply because I expected too much.
In the case of “Les Enfant du Paradis” the critics have called it the best French movie ever and the Book itself is not short of hyperbole. Well, if this was the first French movie I ever saw this would probably have been my last. If this is the best French cinema has to offer then that would be truly sad and I would not be looking forward to any of the “lesser” film. As it is I can honestly say that this is not even close to top marks and I can rattle off dozens of French films that do more for me than “Les Enfant du Paradis”. Frankly I think the praise tells more about the critics than about the movie.
This very long film (3 hours!) is the story of four people vying for the love of a courtesan called Garance (Léonie Marie Julie Bathiat, also known as Arletty). All of them have a relationship to a particular entertainment district in Paris known as "Boulevard du Crime". Batiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) is a talented mime and is supposed to be the shy one. Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur) is an actor with a serious prima donna issue. Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) is a wannabe criminal kingpin and aspiring playwright (???), a self-confessed cynic and madly in love with himself. And finally Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), a rich count and admirer of the arts and especially Garance.
These four people are all madly in love with Garance and that is basically the story of the film. This is not the story of a woman who ruins people, not at all. Garance is the most sensible of the lot. This is a story of a bunch of lovesick adolescents (of any age) who are fully capable of ruining things on their own. That is also at the core of my problem with this film. Not only are these people generally acting like idiots, they are also being incredibly literal and declamatory. It is as if that all their thoughts must be spelled out to the audience in a dialogue which among normal people would never take place. There is nothing implied or hinted. Everything is thrown into the open and that by people who wear their feeling on the outside and care nothing if they hurt or trample other people as long as they follow their heart or probably more correctly, their basic instincts. It is indeed like watching a soap opera with lovesick teenagers.
On top of that the dialogue is spiced up with what I assume is philosophical references so that often as not these characters sound like they are reading from some highbrow work of 18th and 19th century philosophers. That makes it incredibly pretentious as if wearing a shroud of something very deep and humanistic and maybe this is what sold it to the critics. For me however it works less than bad. I end up having no sympathy for any of the men, nor for the producers, writers or directors who gave me this film.
The Comte is an almost comically imbecilic character who is so obsessed with the thought of being cucolded by his girlfriend Garance that he is busy challenging everybody to dueling with him. He has taken her in under the pretense of offering her his protection, but since he cannot buy what he really long for, her love, he denies it to anybody else. With a vengeance.
Lacenaire is incredibly self-absorbed. He constantly goes to great length explaining himself as some sort of Nietzsche/Sartre creation for whom love is for the weak, that he instead aims for a higher more professional goal by exploiting the lesser creatures around him. Except by doing all this explanation it just sounds like a lie he is telling himself and certainly his actions reveal him as a bitter and jealous man. From the start he reduces Garance to a friend or colleague, but clearly he is as possessive about her as anybody else. He just uses more highbrow words to explain it. A jackass, pure and simple.
Even jackass fails to describe Frédérick. He is the human incarnation of a satyr. Lustful, hedonistic, careless and with all his being aimed at getting into the panties of everything female that passes his way. I mean literally anything. Random women on the street or the old landlady at the inn. In the second half we see him with two women simultaneous and they do not seem to mind. Only Garance is difficult for him. Not that he does not try or even succeed at getting underneath her plentiful skirts, but he never wins her love, and I suppose the film is trying to tell us that because of this his life is ultimately empty.
Finally we have Batiste. I suppose he is our lead male and the one we should be rooting for. He is the talented mime who can do anything on stage but is shy and reluctant off stage. It is then because of this shyness that he blows it when he gets a very clear invitation from Garance. Except that this crucial scene is played with so many words and is still so weird that I would not call it shyness, but a very staged and scripted form of madness. Let us just say that he come through as very artificial. Later in the second half when he gets Garance within reach again he is willing to throw away everything for her. Again I suppose the authors are trying to tell us something about all consuming love, but to me he is merely being the ultimate fool.
Garance as I mentioned is both the object of the love and madness of all these men and the only sympathetic and responsible being of these people. I suppose she is meant to be a symbol of the female being and certainly she has very few skills or attributes but being a beautiful woman. That only makes the mad love of all these men even more insane because what is it really they are so infatuated by? An image? An empty shell? Yet she does have a notable and quite admirable quality, though not one that is recognized by her lovers, that of sanity and common sense. She actually sees through the infatuation of these men and has a realistic outlook both when it comes to her own love life and that of her would-be lovers. She also has the only really good and true line in the entire film when she tells Batiste near the end that: “You have a nice little boy, you love your little boy”. That ought to have been foremost in Batiste head, but Garance had to tell him.
I am sure this film is intended (and probably seen by many) as an essay on the depth of love and lust and maybe that is the source of the praise it has gotten. I see it as a rather annoying film about men who losses their heads over what they think is love and ruin everything in the process. Tragic, really, and almost unbearable to watch.