Les Enfants du Paradis – Reviewed

Rachael Jones on a classic of French Cinema recently restored by the British Film Institute…

Seeing a film that lasts more than three hours takes preparation. You need enough caffeine to see you through potential slow bits, water to stay hydrated and enough snacks (a mixture of sweet and savoury, naturally) to stave off tummy rumbles for the duration.

Unless you’re lucky enough, as we were, to see Les Enfants du Paradis at FACT. Recently restored by the BFI, the film clocks in at a hefty 195 minutes divided into two parts. As we were expecting to sit through both and had accepted that our lower body would be so numb by the end we’d be unable to get up for ten minutes, we were pleasantly surprised halfway through when the screen went dark and the lights came up. An intermission! A real one! Fifteen glorious minutes in which to correct our woeful underestimation of just how much we eat during a movie and switch our coffee for wine. You don’t get this sort of service at your local Cineworld.

Sitting back down post-break and watching the credits roll a second time, it struck us that we were getting something pretty close to an authentic experience. Had we been watching the film in 1946 there would certainly have been a break – we might even have chatted to those around us about what was going on.

Of course, it’s likely that the BFI intended for it to be screened so; but a restoration is no good unless people get to see it and for that, we give FACT (and the Picturehouses at large) all the credit.

FACT has long been committed to giving customers something a little bit different, and this year’s season of ‘alternative’ Christmas flicks has been no exception. Why sit through Arnold Schwarzenegger in a plastic superhero suit, faffing about with Bad Santa when you can see Die Hard on the big screen instead? And sod cutesy Christmas elves; give us classic French cinema any day.

“It struck us that we were getting something pretty close to an authentic experience”

Which brings us nicely back to the movie. Les enfants du paradis, or Children of Paradise if you prefer, is a phenomenal piece of film-making. Starring French megastar Arletty, it’s the tale of woman-about-town Garance, who only needs to look at a man before he’s head over heels in love. Must be nice!

First suitor? Frederick, who spies her on the street. He’s followed swiftly by Lacenaire, a shy mime named Baptiste and the fabulously wealthy – and fabulously monikered – Count Edouard of Monteray. Who will Garance plump for? At some point or other, all of them. Love Actually this ain’t.

The plot does move slowly, no doubt about that. Three hours to find out which guy the hottest chick in Paris will go for? It sounds excessive, but there’s a magic about the way things unfold that keeps you riveted from the get-go. Plus it’s bloody funny! The dialogue is unexpectedly sharp and witty; there were several moments when the entire cinema laughed out loud.  And a bearded Zach Galifanakis lookalike lumbering around in a shiny leotard that we can only imagine was originally pink? Physical comedy at its best.

That’s not to say there aren’t sad moments. How can there not be, when four men are in love with the same woman? The amazing thing about the film is that watching the tragedy you instantly forget about the comedy, and vice versa.  Every scene works perfectly both in isolation and in the film as a whole, and the overall effect is so emotionally profound that it’s hard to put into words. We were completely immersed in what these characters went through, and we were sad to leave them.

OK, serious bit over! On a lighter note, props to Jean-Louis Barrault as the lovelorn Baptiste. Rocking it as an actor and a mime? We’d like to see Ryan Reynolds try and pull that off. Or maybe we wouldn’t…

There’s something about black-and-white movies that’s more beautiful than any amount of CGI. The way light falls on faces, the way the shadows move; it’s utterly captivating and way more visually satisfying than 7-foot blue people waging war in 3D.

600 French critics once voted this the greatest French film ever made. Go see it; if your glutes have got the ‘nads for it.

And if you’re reading this sharpish enough, get yourself off to see It’s a Wonderful Life at FACT later on. It is Christmas, after all.

Rachael Jones

Posted on 24/12/2011 by thedoublenegative