Posts Tagged ‘Vichy’

Les Enfants du Parasite

Posted in General on September 8th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

I just saw a sweeping spectacle of 19th century thieves, buffoons and sociopaths. No, I am not referring to the Republican Convention but to the French masterpiece “Les Enfants du Paradise.” The title, “The Children of Paradise”, refers to actors. They certainly are not to be confused with angels: they are a gallery of libidinous rogues who are shamelessly at ease with both aristocrats and criminals (and those castes may be synonymous too). But while the actors are on the stage, they give their audiences a sense of the ideal.

To summarize the plot: four men are in love with the same woman. To the woman’s credit, she never loves more than two at a time. And she does have a remarkably diverse appeal: the aesthetic mime, the garrulous actor, the sociopathic criminal and the overbearing aristocrat. Imagine if one woman was having simultaneous affairs with Johnny Depp, Jack Black, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney. (In the French version, the Cheney type is more likable than the Romney alternative.) Yes, from that description, the film seems absurd; while you are watching it, however, you will be charmed, moved and fascinated. And you will remember it.

The history of the film is also remarkable. Produced in two parts, 90 minutes each, “Les Enfants du Paradise” took three years to make, and those years were 1943 to 1945. So the film began production during the German Occupation, under the auspices of the Vichy Regime; and it finished after the Liberation. The War and its politics were mirrored in the film. Some members of the cast were collaborators while members of the production were part of the Resistance. The female lead, Arletty, was of an accommodating nature. As she said after the War, “My heart is French, but my ass is international.” In contrast, the set designer literally had to stay behind the scenes; otherwise, Alexandre Trauner could have been relocated to an unspecified location in Poland. Joseph Kozma, the composer of the film’s score, also found it healthier to work at varying locations in the South of France.

Despite the Vichy supervision, the film’s script does have liberal traits. Although the story is set in the 1830s, the sociopathic criminal seems to have a prophetic familiarity with the yet unborn Nietzsche. Now, what kultur at the time loved to quote Nietzsche–although completely out of context? You’d think that the Vichy censors would have noticed and removed the fingernails from the scriptwriter. However, this was 1943 and 1944. The Vichy officials certainly had heard the rumors from the Eastern Front, and the French had learned what happens when you lose your main army in Russia. Allied Air Forces controlled the skies of France, and the massive American army in Britain was not merely to keep the Irish at bay. Perhaps the Vichy censors decided that a little leniency was a prudent policy; if you are going to collaborate, why not collaborate with both sides?

So, “Les Enfants du Paradise” is not merely a masterpiece of French cinema but of French cynicism.

p.s. Please don’t tell Ron Howard about this film. He’ll want to remake it with Jim Carrey.