This ambitious French film turns out to be a strange mixture of the beautiful, the esoteric and the downright dull. Some startling flashes of inspired mimicry and fresh Gallic humor are wedded to the not un-Hollywoodian concept of the femme fatale who, willy-nilly in this instance, leads men to their ruin in an uneven performance of writing and direction.
Les enfants du paradis borrows its title from the denizens (reminiscent of those old silents depicting mobs in French revolution scenes) who frequented the top gallery of a dreary little theatre in the Paris of the 1840s. Its poetical concept is to present the world’s charade, in which the theatre’s actors and actresses take part, with the Shakespearian view that life’s a stage and those upon it poor players.
Covering a stretch of years in the lives of a players’ troupe, the leisurely tale centers on a mimic, Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), and his other-world passion for a demi-monde, Garance (Arletty), who moves through the seamy Parisian environs, bestowing her charms on those she likes – but not for coin. Arletty is also pursued by a flamboyant confrere of Barrault’s (Pierre Brasseur); by a sinister cut-throat (Marcel Herrand); and an aristocrat (Louis Salou) whose attention is transfixed by Arletty’s stage appearance. Hanging on the fringe is Nathalie (Maria Casares), hopelessly in love with Barrault.
Barrault is brilliantly effective as the sensitive, lovelorn mimic. Other lead parts are sharply defined and maintained consistently in a film which is a peak of thespian artistry.
[Version reviewed was a 144-min., inadequately-subtitled one released in New York in 1947. Complete version is in two parts: Le boulevard du crime/The Boulevard of Crime runs 100 mins. and ends with the police questioning Garance; L’homme blanc/The Man in White runs 88 mins.]