Children of Paradise (France, 1945) * * * *
D: Marcel Carne
Oh God what a great film. This one really smashed me over the head with a bottle (and not a breakway glass prop bottle, either, but real vintage Parisian wine). I don't know what to say. I love that the film is entirely about actors, and what it means to be an actor--a performer, a front, or a marionette. This is considered of the Great Films, but it is not obsessed with delivering the meaning of life. Although it may contain that, too, in-between the details. Baptiste (Jean-Louise Barrault), a mime who performs onstage in the early 19th century falls into obsessive love with a prostitute and carny, Garance (Arletty), who becomes an actress and, in one of their performances, literally is placed upon a pedastal and worshiped by Baptiste's submissive, pale-faced clown. But Garance, who thinks nothing of sharing her body with another, easily succumbs to the charms of the actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur). Baptiste is kind of a Charlie Chaplin (pathos-laden comedy), and Frederick is kind of a face-pulling 19th-century Jim Carrey, if that helps. And when Frederick achieves success and becomes famous, he still deeply envies Baptiste's artistic integrity; secretly, Frederick wants to play Othello. Baptiste is devastated that Garance would decide to live with Frederick, and so he lives years in jealous resentment while married to another, although Garance claims to love him back. And Garance takes off with a rich count, though he will not be able to truly possess her either.
It might sound like a soap opera, but each character is so sharply defined that they seem to have existed for centuries like archetypes in the collective unconscious; and, in fact, the story does not so much end as continue on after the credits. Nightmarishly, they will always play these roles, actors trapped in a hellish, Chekhovian universe of unrequited love. Over three hours long, and divided into two halves, but not a moment passes that isn't witty, smartly observed, moving, or gorgeous. Carne directed another one of my favorite French films, Port of Shadows, but with Children of Paradise he moves among the clouds.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (U.S., 1959) * * *
D: Ranald MacDougall
Probably the first "last man on earth" film, of that Cold War, atom-age genre that spawned many other paranoid fantasies about widespread nuclear holocaust leaving only a handful of survivors. Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend, a novelette that inspired two films, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston (and possibly a third remake, so often announced but never arriving). Then there's The Quiet Earth and Night of the Comet from the 80's, or Roger Corman's satire Gasssss, in which a mysterious gas leaves only teenagers and children alive, and they're all hippies. This one has Harry Belafonte becoming trapped in a mine while nuclear fallout (or something similar--the science is a bit odd) spreads across the world, killing all within a five-day span. Since he emerges after five days, he's the only survivor in sight, and the most powerful and memorable moments come as he walks through a deserted Manhattan, screaming at the empty skyscrapers. (Filmed in Cinemascope and on vast sets with convincing matte paintings, this is much more impressive-looking than you expect from a film that hasn't even been released on DVD yet. A commentary track would be invaluable, as one can only assume that the scenes shot on location must have been done in the very early morning hours or with very delicately chosen camera angles. Still, you never feel that there are commuters or urbanites lurking just out of frame.) Belafonte eventually comes into contact with a 21-year-old girl, and an interracial romance begins, or almost begins--they spend more time fretting about it than anything else. Eventually, in the last half-hour, a third character enters the picture, and that's when the plot loses its way, and there's a conclusion which Leonard Maltin's movie guide calls "ridiculous," and he's right, not the least because it's forced and illogical.
Ultimately it's in the mold of a Stanley Kramer film, and wants to concern itself with too many Big Issues like race and masculinity and war. It's still interesting enough to recommend, but a more modest, understated conclusion would have been more effective. A complete plot synopsis (with spoilers), and a trailer for the film, can be found here.