Returning to Les Enfants du Paradis* after 30 years

How we change!  As a young man, I was quite taken with the character of  Pierre-François Lacenaire, as portrayed by Marcel Herrand.  That famous boulevardier, poet and criminal—king of the underworld, strolling the alleys and avenues of Paris in the 1820s, his sword inside a Malacca scabbard, une canne-épée, with a handle of carved ivory, looking for someone who would do the honor of insulting him.  He can wait until he finds the right man, the right offence.  There is a saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man.”

He is seeking revenge for a childhood wrong, no more concerned, it would seem, as to who the perpetrator was than who will pay the price. By his own admission, he harbors a contempt for all humankind and is ready to face the consequences of his actions—the guillotine if necessary, but on the condition that he not lose his head on a  “provincial scaffold.” He will die in Paris, at the center of attention, at the center of the Universe.

So beware, citizens.  We have reason to believe that he has killed before.  “I am a thief by need, a murderer by calling.” You could be next. Be ready to choose your weapon—although I don’t think he is in favor of duels; he prefers to kill his enemies outright, or those he perceives as his enemies or those who have provoked him.

Now, after 30 years, I feel sorry for Pierre-François Lacenaire.  He was not as free as he thought he was, nor was he as admirable although I continue to admire his wardrobe. He was a slave to passion, a romantic figure vulnerable to ridicule, perverse, alone, dangerous enough but a source of merriment to “the only woman for whom I have no contempt.”  Those are his words—his declaration of love?— and the woman, of course, would be the sensible, beautiful Garance who scoffs at his ideas, who loves Baptiste, the man in white.

Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste used to frighten me— as his character frightened some of the other members of the Théâtre du Funambules—as he would look with penetrating eyes, at times inhuman and cruel, through his clown’s white mask. Now, I like his fits of melancholy, his fierce expression of love and his clown’s temper—all delivered in paper-light motion, in pantomime. I no longer fear him.

How we change, and how we age!  I used to think Arletty in the role of Garance was plain, unremarkable. Now she seems radiant, a beautiful presence, and, naturally, much younger than she appeared to me before.  And I have no more sympathy than I did 30 years ago  for her self-appointed protector, the boring, presumptuous Count Édouard de Montray, as he is cut down in a Paris bathhouse by our redoubtable assassin, Pierre François Lacenaire.

I will always hear the voice of Baptiste in the final scene as he elbows his way through the carnival crowd in hopeless pursuit, calling “ Garance, Garence!.”

Stuart Dodds

* Children of Paradise, a film by Marcel Carné, 1945

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