Film review: 'Paradise' revisited

Thanks to digital technology, film — that is, the actual, physical substance — is disappearing faster than, hmm, let's say, adding machines and manual typewriters disappeared in earlier upheavals. Whether or not new technology is also having a negative effect on film, the art form, is a matter for lively debate. But there's no doubt that for both financial and technical reasons, it has proved a boon for classic cinema.

Take, for instance, the case of Marcel Carne's 1945 “Children of Paradise” (“Les Enfants du Paradis”), one of the most beloved and respected French classics, which is opening this week in a significantly restored version, as befits one of the glories of old-fashioned narrative cinema.

In the days before home video, back when herds of repertory theaters roamed the cities and college towns of America, “Children of Paradise” was one of those films that buffs would see every time it came to town for fear that it might be their last chance — and this for a movie that clocks in at more than three hours.

The story is a throwback to the novels of Victor Hugo, a complexly plotted romance set against a historical background during the 1820s and ’30s, with real and invented characters intermingling. It has a theatrical setting, and the title refers to the poorest ticket-buyers sitting up in the highest balconies.

At its center is Garance (Arletty), a beautiful woman with whom all the male principals are in love, in one way or another: the naïve mime Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), whose love is sheer romantic passion; the charmingly shallow actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), whose feelings are more practical; Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a bitter playwright/thief/murderer whose passion is exceeded by his pride and egotism; and the Count de Montray (Louis Salou), a pompous stage-door Johnny who wishes to possess her.

The movie is frequently referred to as the French “Gone with the Wind,” thanks to its blend of history and romance, a woman around whom the action revolves, its epic sweep, and passion as a central plot force. But the story behind the film is just as fascinating.

Most of the production, extraordinarily enough, took place during the Nazi occupation. Film stock and construction materials were limited; the cast and crew included many members of the resistance; and production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Jewish, were hiding out and sending in their work clandestinely. The actor with the sixth or seventh largest part was a collaborator; after the Liberation, he had to flee for his life and most of his role had to be reshot using a replacement.

“Children of Paradise” was a huge hit in France, running for almost a year, and screenwriter Jacques Prevert was nominated for an Oscar. It has frequently shown up on critics' polls of the best movies ever made.

Thanks to the first wave of home video, fresh prints of “Children of Paradise” were created in the early ’90s, and then again about 10 years ago for DVD. Now — with a presumed Blu-ray release giving a financial incentive and with digital restoration more sophisticated — a far more thorough restoration has been done. There was no missing footage, beyond dropouts of a few frames here and there (now replaced); but the frame-by-frame digital removal of scratches, mold distortions and other blemishes from a high-density scan of the original negative has produced a vastly cleaner image than any of the previous versions.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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