French National Cinema

Among the benefits of visiting the Detroit Film Theatre and the Michigan Theater are the new things that you learn about other countries. You can see how they differ from the United States in their language, geography, food, politics, and other areas.

You can also discover the different ways that film can reveal a country’s identity. The DFT and Michigan recently screened two classic French movies that reflected experiences unique to the citizens of France.

On July 28 and August 4, 2012, the DFT screened a 1934 version of the novel Les Misérables, written by one of France’s most highly regarded authors, Victor Hugo. On August 14, 2012, the Michigan presented the 1945 drama Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis), which was filmed while Paris was occupied by the Nazis.

In 2012, it’s easy to appreciate these films as powerful examples of the long, rich history of world cinema. But to make the films a more full educational experience, I tried to imagine how French audiences saw these movies when they were first released. They are inseparable from the much larger contexts in which they were conceived.

When Les Misérables was released in France in 1934, about 50 years had passed since the death of Victor Hugo. Many older people probably remembered the his big funeral on June 1, 1885. His books, including The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, had established themselves as classics of world literature and had become dependable source material for many movies.

A few years after this film version of Les Misérables was released, Paris and the rest of France was occupied by Nazi Germany, but life still carried on, as best as possible. That was true for everyone, including some filmmakers who had this idea for an epic romantic drama about theater life. The idea eventually turned into the 1945 movie Children of Paradise. Perhaps they were inspired by the epic storytelling tradition of French authors like Hugo and Émile Zola.

Through the years, Children of Paradise has built up a reputation as an accomplishment under trying circumstances. Many movie makers look at it as an example of what you can achieve if you really have the desire and dedication.

An ongoing theme in French film is the relationship between the Nazi occupiers in World War II and the French people. To what degree did French people actively or passively resist or cooperate with their Nazi captors?

Children of Paradise is mainly a romantic drama, not political, although film historians have read political meanings into some of its scenes. So I’d imagine that the filmmakers were not trying to hide anything from the Nazis. But some difficult thoughts remain about how the film came into being.

On one hand, the fact that the movie was made under such trying circumstances is proof that the Nazis didn’t completely break the creative spirit of the French people. On the other hand, the oppressive authoritarian rule of the Nazis required that they always find ways to keep the population under control. From this, you can imagine the opportunities and temptations for the Nazis to extract bribes and other compromises from the filmmakers. And you wonder how much the filmmakers might have given into those temptations, with the rationalization that they were making an ambitious film.

So it’s reasonable to think that the people of France might have many different feelings about this film, which some have described as France’s version of Gone with the Wind.

Different Passions

The passions of Children of Paradise were mostly confined to the romantic liaisons of female lead Arletty (who in real life was jailed after World War II because of a romantic affair with a German officer).

In Les Misérables, the drama was played out in more moral terms, as we watched the main character, Jean Valjean, continually forced to decide between right and wrong for the benefit of others and his own conscience. The story of Les Misérables is very familiar to modern audiences. It has been filmed many times, in both French and English. A musical stage version has played all over the world and will screen in a movie version later this year.

As I watched Les Misérables at the DFT, I was reminded of film’s power to educate us about moral issues through our observation of human behavior on a flickering screen. The three-part movie lasted about five hours, which gave us the chance to get very familiar with all of the characters. When Jean Valjean and others made important choices, we had much background and context by which to understand the significance of these choices.

Both Les Misérables and Children of Paradise attempted to bring a novelistic feeling to the filmgoing experience. Both were presented in multiple parts, with each part feeling like a long chapter. Each part began with credits, which helped the audience re-familiarize themselves with the cast and crew that was making these cinematic journeys possible. The showing of Les Misérables over two weekends made it almost feel like a very sophisticated Saturday afternoon serial.

Both movies made extensive use of city streets, helping to take us back to early 19th century France. In Les Misérables, the streets were used for political clashes and police pursuits. In Children of Paradise, the streets were an endlessly flowing stream of people from all walks of life, taking in the sights and sounds of theatrical entertainment.

Both films were set a few decades after the French Revolution, and there were tributes to the youthful masses, in the upper galleries of a theater in Children of Paradise and street revolts in Les Misérables.

Identify played a big role in each film. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean changed his identity several times to elude capture by the police. And some of the most dramatic moments of Les Misérables came when Jean Valjean revealed his true identity. Much of Children of Paradise‘s fame and appeal comes from the delicate and expressive pantomime of Jean-Louis Barrault, especially the poignant and heartbreaking scene on stage with Arletty playing a beautiful statue.

The titles of both films were perceptive descriptions of different parts of the human condition—Les Misérables (The Miserable) and Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). For many DFT and Michigan visitors, these movies made them feel more alive and more aware as they exited from the theater into the warmth and sunshine of summer.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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