Children of Paradise
Poetic realism reached sublime heights with Children of Paradise, widely considered one of the greatest French films of all time. This nimble depiction of nineteenth-century Paris’s theatrical demimonde, filmed during World War II, follows a mysterious woman (Arletty) loved by four different men (all based on historical figures): an actor, a criminal, a count, and, most poignantly, a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault, in a longing-suffused performance for the ages). With sensitivity and dramatic élan, director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert resurrect a world teeming with hucksters and aristocrats, thieves and courtesans, pimps and seers. And thanks to a major new restoration, this iconic classic looks and sounds richer and more detailed than ever.
Criterion presents Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise in two parts on the same dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The film is given a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer from the new 2011 4k restoration of the film and is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1.
I’m not going to offer anything new to what has already been said by others; the transfer is a mess and a major disappointment, especially when all home video releases have been somewhat problematic. Made during the German occupation of France, using whatever film stock the crew could get their hands on, the film has existed in heavily damaged prints but is lucky to still exist at all. Criterion previously released the film on DVD, which showed the rough condition the film was in, though I was actually always pleased with what we ended up with (in reality it could have been so much worse.)
The new restoration itself looks impressive here. Some parts still look faded and some wear and tear remains, but condition of the print (so to speak) looks far better than any previous version I’ve seen. If it wasn’t for other aspects of the transfer (which I’ll get to in a bit) this could have been filmed recently. The restoration looks great, and far exceeded anything I could have imagined.
Unfortunately the digital transfer itself has been processed within an inch of its life. It looks awful, and is easily one of the worst looking transfers Criterion has yet delivered on Blu-ray. Long shots are “acceptable” at best, but close-ups look horrendous. Films grain has been scrubbed out, losing just about all details in the process. Close-ups on Lacenaire are particularly laughable, the character now looking like a porcelain doll with tight curls, and its almost as though there’s a glare coming off his forehead at all times. Clothing lacks details and every costume comes off as though they're made from vinyl. There are no textures, fine patterns are almost scrubbed to oblivion, and things look like they’re consistently out of focus (though in fairness this could be a condition of the source material or how the film was shot.) Worst of the all the entire image looks severely flat, without any depth what-so-ever. There’s a note in the booklet which states that soft focus was used a lot throughout the film, and I’m sure this is the case, but the digital manipulation certainly didn’t help and makes the film look far softer than I’m sure was intended and the restoration demonstration included as a supplement further suggests this.
Contrast is different from the DVD, looking a little brighter, more silvery, so blacks come off grayer, but reading some items seem to suggest this is the intended look. But mixed in with the scrub-job that was done it creates an incredibly odd look where everything looks artificial and unnatural. Some sequences even look computer generated.
Since this is so out of character for Criterion, who usually deliver as film-like a look as possible, I suspect it’s the master they received from Pathe, and not something they’ve done. This is incredibly unfortunate as it more than likely means this is the best we’ll get since details can’t be added back. In comparison to the original DVD’s presentation, the restoration is definitely far better here, but I honestly feel that DVD’s presentation looks more filmic than this new Blu-ray, despite the compression noise, which just baffles me in all honesty. An incredible disappointment.
The audio, presented in linear PCM mono, fairs a bit better. It sounds clean, with easy to hear dialogue and decent music. But the age still limits it and it sounds a bit hollow and tinny, especially at the beginning. Still, the clean-up is more substantial in comparison to the previous DVD, where the tininess was far worse, and the background noise is now mostly gone.
Criterion ports over most of the supplements from their previous 2-disc release, starting with two audio commentaries featuring film scholars Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron. Stonehill’s plays over the first part of the film and he talks more about the actual production and the French film industry as it was during the German. He also gets into the various problems that occurred during production, usually related to the occupation, which involved limited resources, cast and crew that either had to flee or were captured, the many ways they were able to get around certain rules, and also talks a bit about the film’s release. He also talks about the various themes that are in the film, talks about the many characters and their relationships, and also about the people that influenced these characters.
Affron’s track covers some of the same material but he seems to want to contextualize the film a little more, whether it be about the time period in which the film takes place or when it was actually filmed. He also adds on a bit more about themes within the film, such as the characters and their various identities. His more interesting contributions have to do more with theater as it’s presented in the film, getting into various traditions and some of the popular players. He actually manages to avoid repeating much of what Stonehill says, and it sounds like he may have listened to his track beforehand since he references it in a few places.
Both fall into the trap of repeating what’s on screen, at times almost giving an exact play-by-play, instead of just letting it play out in reply to their own comments, but they’re both fairly illuminating to a degree. I think Stonehill’s slightly edges out Affron if only because he’s a bit more engaging and far less dry, but I enjoyed both and appreciated the historical aspects of them.
The second single-layer Blu-ray disc presents the remaining supplements. Also from the original DVD edition is a 5-minute introduction by director Terry Gilliam. Here he quickly talks about his love for the film, its presentation of theater, and how it has influenced his directing, admitting he’s stolen from it. We also get another restoration demonstration like the original DVD, though this one relates to the new restoration performed by Pathe. This 4-minute segment provides a series of before-and-afters and split screens to show off the work done. The original print was in terrible condition, no doubt, and was littered with severe scratches, missing frames, and even custom stamps (stamped right on the film!) Unfortunately the demonstration also shows how the digital meddling has also harmed the film. One sequence in particular features a black jacket that actually has some texture and detail in the before shot, but then it becomes smooth and digitized in the after shot. Some of the improvements are impressive but I’m not a big fan of the final product as it appears here.
We then again get the U.S. theatrical trailer. From here the rest of the material is new.
Criterion includes a 51-minute documentary made in 2009 by Julie Bronan entitled Once Upon a Time: Children of Paradise. For whatever reason it felt unfocussed for me, but it covers the film’s production, including what it was like for all French filmmakers during the occupation, and covers some of the same stories mentioned in the commentary like the luxuries on set, which included the multiple whole chickens used in one scene or the cast and crew members who found themselves in trouble either because they were wanted by members of the resistance or were Jewish and needed to hide. But it of course mixes in interviews with various directors and scholars, and also provides archival interviews with crew members and actors, including Arletty who recalls the trouble she got into because of her relationship with a German soldier. It felt to jump around and I never felt it really focused on any one particular subject well enough, but I still enjoyed it for its look at the production, dealing with the new film codes that had come into play, and for the various interviews with members of the original cast and crew.
Criterion next includes a 22-minute visual essay by Paul Ryan called The Look of Children of Paradise. This looks at the work of the various set and costume designers for the film, as well as the art work that influenced them, mixing in pictures of various sketches and pieces.
The disc then concludes with a 63-minute documentary made in 1967 called The Birth of “Children of Paradise”, which is probably the best feature to be found here. Revisiting some locations of the shoot and gathering interviews from participants, specifically Alexandre Trauner, along with Carne and Arletty. But one of the more interesting aspects of the documentary is the inclusion of interviews with New Wave directors Claude Lelouche, Agnes Varda, Louis Malle, Jacques Demy, Francois Truffaut, and others, who all talk about the film’s influence and its classic form of direction. By far the best feature on here and certainly the one most will want to check out.
The lengthy booklet then features an essay on the film by Dudley Andrew. We also get a reprint of a great 1990 interview with Carne performed by Stonehill, which also appeared in the original DVD’s booklet, though has had some minor edits here. Missing from this release are a few galleries and filmographies. Peter Cowie’s essay is missing from here as well, and the cast biographies are also missing from the booklet.
Overall it’s a nice upgrade over the original DVD. The one making-of documentary disappointed me, but the 1967 documentary The Birth of “Children of Paradise” and the commentaries are all strong features.
Feature-wise it’s a nice edition, and the audio does sound better in comparison to the older DVD. But the video is, simply put, bizarre. I don’t know what to make of it: everything looks waxy or, at its very worst, almost computer generated. This is all an incredible shame as it looks like the clean-up job was wonderful. If the digital manipulation and smoothing of the image could have been scaled back I’m sure we would have had something amazing. As it stands, this is easily the most disappointing release I’ve seen this year.