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The book cover of Edward Baron Turk's Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema

Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema by Edward Baron Turk, 1989, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0 674 11461 2 Available here.

“Who invented the cinema?” In some circles the answer to this question is still disputed, but the first instance of the film as we know it is generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (original title: La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon). In the wake of this breakthrough effort, the Lumière Brothers’ home country of France has spawned a wealth of inspired cinema. To say the least. However, despite plenty of auspicious films pre-dating and following it, what film historians refer to fondly as “The Golden Age” of French cinema lasted no more than 15 years—from the start of the 1930s until, roughly, the end of World War II. Many cinephiles are likely to have their favorite relevant directors—anyone from Jean Grémillon, to Julien Duvivier, to Jean Renoir, to Jacques Feyder, to René Clair, to Jean Vigo, to name a few. But it’s difficult to talk about this era at any length without bringing into consideration the films of Marcel Carné (1906-1996). By all accounts Carné’s filmography was marred by unevenness. And during his life, most famously in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, he was tarred and feathered as more of a “craftsman” or taskmaster-type director than a full-on “artist” or semi-autonomous auteur. And yet, despite his ups and downs, and despite falling in and out of favor with the critical establishment, few astute film buffs would deny the late Frenchman’s best work.

Carné first made waves in the 1930s taking cues from German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau and films like Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, arranging tableaux that were often bathed in light and shadows, inscribed with a palpable sense of atmosphere that could be very foggy and damp. This brooding visual aesthetic was married with sharp dialogue and dazzling scenarios penned by expert-level screenwriter Jacques Prévert. Along with production design by Alexandre Trauner and the help of some of the most capable screen actors of the day, the Carné-Prévert partnership resulted in a series of cool moody classics often characterized by melancholic longing, engaging twists and turns, doomed love, and a uniquely French strain of fatalism. These films have been described by many as examples of “poetic realism,” though it’s to Carné’s credit that everything but his first film Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche was about as far removed from documentary film production values as can be. From the onset, Carné’s most celebrated film, Children of Paradise (original title: Les Enfants du Paradis), was destined to go down in history. Made during the Occupation, at times covertly, it was released just after the war and hailed as a pièce de resistance of not only French cinema but French art in general. Children of Paradise adeptly mingled “high” and “low” culture by way of portraying 19th Century French theater, its performers and patrons, while homing in on an elusive seductress and four disparate suitors who vie for her affection. Though Carné’s career didn’t end there, the near-universal appeal of the film was never quite repeated and his last popular success was 1958’s The Cheaters (original title: Les Tricheurs), an excellent film that unfortunately has yet to receive a proper reissue in the English speaking world. Lamentably Carné’s fall from critical grace in the post-war era and eventual inability to get new projects off the ground made some declare him, in later years, France’s greatest “living dead” filmmaker.

On the subject of Marcel Carné, his career, and the changing historical milieu in which it took place, there’s little likelihood of finding a more worthy book than Edward Baron Turk’s Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema. It might not be the final word when it comes to rating the films in question (if such a thing were to exist), but Turk’s book does stand as a doorway of sorts through which anyone interested in the subject should feel compelled to pass. There comes a point at which doing such a worthwhile era justice requires going beyond the received wisdom of “ambient data” and the readily available, pre-existing literature. In other words one has to dig much deeper, comb through lots of French-language ephemera, watch a lot of cinema hidden from public view, and interview the people who were there, including the director himself. Reading through Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema it’s not hard to tell that Turk did just that.

It should be noted that Turk’s evaluation of Carné’s life and oeuvre does sometimes seem more psychoanalytically inclined than I would normally care for. And at times he almost seems too critical of the better films discussed, most of which I tend to like in very broad, affirmative terms (having seen mountains of cinema that pales in comparison). But none of this matters. The great thing about reading Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema is that even if the reader doesn’t see eye to eye with Turk on his assessment of a given film, the writing is so informed and detailed that she’ll be learning new things at every page. On that score it’s an invaluable resource.

To account for all of the material covered in the book would be difficult. But here are a few things I learned about and found interesting: how Carné got his break working as an assistant director for Jacques Feyder, whose wife Rosay treated the young protégé like a surrogate son; how Carné fatefully met Jacques Prévert whose early screenplay L’affaire best dans le sac caused such an outrage, when it was filmed by his brother, that Pathé ordered all prints of it destroyed; how Carné was gay but unlike his peer Jean Cocteau he wasn’t quite “out” and this lead to certain tensions, in his life and in his work; how 1946’s Gates of the Night (original title: Les Portes de la nuit) — my personal favorite of the Carné-Prévert films — was a commercial flop upon release, due most likely to it being set during the Occupation, which French audiences were largely anxious to forget about; how Carné’s elaborate production aesthetic and careful methodology came to be regarded as outmoded and overly extravagant by the new guard of French filmmakers represented by Cahiers du Cinéma, whose low-balling of Carné’s work at the time has affected its stature to this day; how François Truffaut, once one of the most vocal attacker’s of Carné’s work, in said publication, lived to regret this and eventually tried to make amends, keeping in touch with the filmmaker and his new output, and once famously declaring “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

As one might gather from the above (which only scratches the surface), Marcel Carné’s career had all of the makings of a compelling “rise and fall” type narrative arc. Reading about his later years — when the director had outlived most of his contemporaries, but couldn’t get funding to make a new film, despite being highly honored for past achievements — it would be easy to conclude that said arc is emblematic of a minor kind of tragedy. However, reading about the exciting fashion in which many of Carné’s films were made, and then watching the better films themselves, the more dominant narrative that emerges is one of triumph over adversity, a case of finding dignity and poetry in uncertain times. For mapping out this terrain, in matter-of-fact detail, it’s hard not to find Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema an essential film book.

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