Pantomime and War: Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise)

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise)

The most impactful pantomime performance in the 1940s was Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance as Baptiste Duburau in the French film Les enfants du paradis (1944-1945), directed by Marcel Carné (1906-1996). Regarded by many film critics as one of the greatest films ever made, Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) makes pantomime as the French conceived it a central, motivating force in the narrative. The idea of making a film about the mime Deburau came from Barrault when he met with Carné and his longtime collaborator, the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) while on holiday in St. Tropez in 1942 (Forbes 1997: 11; Barrault 1972: 167). The three-hour, two-part film takes place in Paris over a period of several years, roughly 1828 to 1836, with nearly all of the action occurring in the theater district or “Boulevard of Crime.” The story depicts how performances at the Funambules Theater draw four men to an enigmatic, elusive woman, Garance, who works as an idealized “living statue” in pantomimic performances. Prévert based the characters of the four men on historical personages: the actor Frederick Lemaitre (1800-1876), the criminal and would-be dramatist Pierre François Lacenaire (1803-1836), the Duke of Morny (1811-1865), presented in the film as Comte Édouard de Montray, and the pantomime Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), presented in the film as Baptiste Deburau. Played by Arletty (1898-1992), Garance conducts amorous relations with all four men, but the only one she loves is Deburau. She becomes the mistress of the Comte de Montray and leaves Paris for several years to live in London and Scotland. When she returns to Paris, she nightly and secretly attends pantomimic performances by Deburau. Discovering her presence at the theater, Lemaitre, Lacenaire, and de Montray compete with each other to claim her attention, but when Lemaitre learns that she has only loved Deburau, he contrives to have the mime rendezvous with her at the theater in which Lemaitre is performing the role of Othello. The social/class animosity between de Montray and Lacenaire reaches its peak when, during an intermission, Lacenaire, weary of de Montray’s contempt for him, exposes to the public the romantic tryst between Garance and Baptiste on a terrace of the theater. De Montray in turn humiliates Lacenaire by having him thrown out of the theater. A few days later, Lacenaire completes his revenge by murdering de Montray in a Turkish bath and awaiting the police to arrest him for the crime. Garance and Baptiste share a night together in the hotel in which years before they first communicated their romantic feelings for each other. But in the morning Baptiste’s wife Nathalie, played by Maria Casares (1922-1996), appears and tries to persuade him to return to her. She is as much in love with him as he is in Garance. As she embraces him, Garance flees the room. Baptiste follows her into the street, but loses her in the jubilant crowd of carnival celebrants. She disappears forever from his life. 

            The film projects a powerful romantic grandeur, but a tragic logic drives the narrative: for the main characters, love never achieves fulfillment, reciprocation, or even happiness that is more than of the utmost brevity. The only love that seems enduring and mutual is that exchanged between the actors and their audience (“the children of paradise”). As Lemaitre explains to Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand [1897-1953]), when the criminal visits the actor in his apartment with the idea of extorting money from the man he thinks has robbed him of Garance: “To hear and feel your heart beat at the same time as the audience” is what makes acting “the finest” profession. Theater here mobilizes “passions” in the characters and brings them into contact with each other. The performances on the stage do not “mirror” the life of the film characters. Rather, they represent a “poetic” life that the characters seek to intrude upon and assert themselves as “authors” of it, a point made most humorously by Lemaitre when in the performance of a bad melodrama, he ceases to speak the lines written for his character and begins improvising a critique of the play, leaving the stage altogether and assuming the position of spectator in a loge, from which he addresses the audience and the actors with his extravagant criticisms. Pantomime is the most “poetic” form of theater insofar as it creates “more love”—that is, it awakens the love of Garance and Baptiste for each other and Nathalie’s love for Baptiste, whereas the other men, who disdain pantomime, only desire Garance, who loves none of them. Lemaitre, played by Pierre Brasseur (1905-1972), gets his start in the theater by performing small roles in Baptiste’s pantomimes, but he feels profoundly stifled by not being able to speak with the bombast and grandiosity that come more naturally to him than from the authors of plays: “I’m dying of silence!” Prévert, however, was reluctant to write the screenplay because of his aversion to pantomime, and he agreed only after Barrault said that he and Decroux, who played Baptiste’s father in the film, would supervise all the pantomime scenes, which they did with the help of Georges Wague (Turk 1989: 220). Yet Baptiste is more than the role he plays on stage, and indeed, his love for Garance is an expression of a doomed desire to escape that role. 

            The film presents three scenes in which Baptiste performs pantomime. In all three scenes, he enacts the figure of a “white” Pierrot. The first scene, however, which introduces the character of Baptiste, takes place in the street before the theater and presents a proto-Pierre. Anselme Deburau addresses the crowd and invites people to attend the theater. He introduces his son, Baptiste, sitting before the crowd, as “someone you will not see on stage,” for Baptiste is a “know-nothing, a dolt, a sleepwalker, an unbelievable nincompoop, a blockhead, a good-for-nothing, a famous father’s despair” whom the father clubs on the head. Baptiste sits forlornly, as if catatonic. Instead of the typical Pierrot white pajama costume with large buttons and a black skullcap, Baptiste wears a white waistcoat, a white vest, white baggy pants, a large, floppy white hat, and long blond hair, although he paints his face close to that of the typical Pierrot. While Anselme speaks to the audience, Baptiste sees Lacenaire steal a watch from a man watching the presentation. Anselme goes into the theater, leaving Baptiste alone on the street stage. When the man discovers that his watch is stolen, he accuses Garance, standing next to him, of having stolen it. The police arrive and seize Garance, but Baptiste intervenes and demonstrates through comical pantomime how Lacenaire stole the watch. The police release Garance, which inspires the audience to cheer exuberantly the skill of the pantomimist. The pantomime is unusual in that in reconstructing the crime Baptiste impersonates, with caricatured gestures, the man with the watch, the thief, and Garance. Garance thanks Baptiste by giving him a flower and blowing him a kiss as she wanders away, which inspires the smiling Baptiste to see in her the great love of his life. But this scene also establishes Baptiste as a superior pantomime artist who replaces his abusive father on the stage of the Funambules. In contrast to the other ambitious male characters in the film, who love to talk in a poetic, philosophical, aphoristic, literary manner, Baptiste embodies ambition as a “silent” phenomenon, as a thing unspoken, undeclared but merely manifested through a gesture, a movement, a glance, a posture that others cannot perform so well or so “poetically.” 

            The second pantomime occurs somewhat later, after Baptiste has become a star. This time he wears the typical white Pierrot costume with huge sleeves, huge buttons, billowing pants, and the black skullcap. The rather modernistic painted scenery depicts a city street with the statue of a goddess (Garance). Pierrot becomes enamored of the goddess, although a police officer (Anselme) enters and discourages his unwholesome attraction to the statue [See Film Series A below]. Pierrot retrieves a bouquet of roses that he offers in vain to the immobile goddess. Depressed, he falls asleep beside the statue. Harlequin (Lemaitre) appears, picks up the roses, and offers them to the goddess, who comes alive, floats down to him, and accepts the roses as he guides her away. When the policeman awakens him, Pierrot becomes distraught to see that the goddess has disappeared, and he dives off the stage. The curtain falls only to rise almost immediately. The scenery now depicts a drab countryside. Pierrot sees the beautiful woman with Harlequin in a boat gliding past him on the river. He longs for her, but she vanishes beyond his impotent, tormented reach. He decides to kill himself with a rope, but as he prepares to hang himself from a tree, a little girl appears and asks to use his rope to skip rope. When he retrieves the rope from the girl, a woman, played by Nathalie, appears and asks to use the rope to hang laundry with Pierrot holding one end of the rope. While holding the rope, Baptiste sees Garance chatting intimately with the harlequin Lemaitre in the wings, which causes him to freeze with jealousy and Nathalie to cry out in alarm: “Baptiste!” a violation of the law that forbids pantomime theaters from uttering anything on stage. Backstage, Nathalie explains to her father, the manager, that Baptiste has changed, that he is “lost,” and that only she can see his “torment,” because she loves him. The pantomimic scene represents only a tiny fragment of pantomimic action that the Funambules would have presented in a show, yet the scene is not in itself particularly interesting. What is interesting is how the film shows characters outside the pantomimic scene intruding upon the lives of the characters in the pantomimic scene: from his box, the Count de Montray (Louis Salou [1902-1948]) sees Garance and becomes infatuated with her; Lemaitre and Garance in the wings disturb the performance and partnership of Baptiste and Nathalie. In costume backstage, Baptiste expresses gentle, quiet concern for Nathalie’s “distress,” while she confides that she has “faith” that someday he will love her. In costume backstage, Lemaitre and Garance discuss their dying relationship: neither is happy with the other, and in her sleep, Lemaitre observes, she calls out “Baptiste!” As he leaves her dressing room, de Montray enters, bringing with him an enormous wreath and proposing to her, using grandiosely flattering euphemistic language, that she become his mistress. While changing from her goddess costume into her street dress, she explains that her life is fine as it is, but she accepts his card, which proves useful when dealing with the police again, who suspect her of having conspired with Lacenaire to commit another crime. When the Count leaves, Baptiste enters, still in costume. He treats the wreath as a symbol of his own funeral, which is better than a wedding for a groom without a bride. The memory of his happiness when he danced with her in the tavern and escorted her to the hotel room he found for her never leaves him. He dances momentarily and sadly with himself, then draws a sword from a prop rack and hacks violently at the wreath, confessing his hatred of the Count, Lemaitre, and himself. Garance asks why he assumes she does not love him. But Nathalie enters; she declares that Garance does not love him, only she loves him, no one else can love him, and no one else can break the invincible truth that she and Baptiste belong to each other. The point here is that the pantomime performance extends beyond the stage to include a drama that no single character can see as completely as the action on the stage. This drama bestows a power on pantomime that is really not in the pantomime performance itself, which consists almost entirely of simple, childlike, exaggerated gestures whose “poetic” quality rests upon the assumption that no one would perform them except on a stage the characters explicitly say has “changed” them. As a result, the pantomime performance on stage appears much simpler and less sustainable than the dramatic and much more subtle performances that unfold before the camera off stage. The film propagates the idea of pantomime as a “poetic” or romantic art, but this idea depends on the cinematic representation of Baptiste, for example, carrying the Pierrot image into dramatic scenes off the stage in which he performs bodily movements of a far greater refinement and subtlety while also speaking. 

            The third pantomime occurs several years later, after Garance has returned from Scotland and watches nightly, from her private box, the pantomime performances at the Funambules. This pantomime is a heavily abbreviated version of the old Le Marchand d’habits scenario from 1842.The scenery here is handsomer, more costly, indicating a rise in the fortunes of the theater and of Baptiste. At night, a luxurious carriage, pulled by a mechanical horse, glides across the stage, with Pierrot stealing a ride on the rear bumper. An elegant, aristocratic woman, the Duchess, played by Nathalie, descends from the carriage and ascends the steps admitting entrance to an opulent mansion. Through a window, the spectator can see the silhouettes of couples dancing. Pierrot hops off the carriage as it pulls away and, in his white pajama costume and skullcap, jauntily struts toward the mansion entrance. But a pair of guards blocks him and then tosses him on his butt, causing a great roar of laughter from the “gods,” the “children of paradise,” the crowd in the cheap seats of the top balcony. The dejected Pierrot signifies his unhappiness at having the wrong costume to gain entrance to the ball. He dances momentarily with himself, emulating the dancing silhouetttes in the window. He then hears the call of an itinerant clothes merchant bearing a rack of secondhand garments. Leaping exuberantly, Pierrot prances around the merchant, who tosses him a pair of items. But when the merchant extends his hand for payment, Pierrot plunges his hand into a big pocket and comes up empty. The merchant tussles the clothes from Pierrot and moves away. Pierrot draws a sword from the merchant’s scabbard and stalks him with a chilling intensity, causing Garance in her box to remark to Lemaitre: “He is gentleness itself. How does he manage to look so cruel?” Pierrot plunges the sword into the merchant, elegantly watches him fall, leaps over the body, and gathers up the clothes he wanted. He stealthily tiptoes away with large steps as the curtain falls. But the film intercuts the pantomime performance with scenes of Garance talking with Lemaitre in her box, where the production manager has escorted the actor, who wears his arm in a sling as a result of his duel with the author he insulted on stage. The dialogue between these two updates the viewer on Garance’s life over the past few years, then drifts toward other themes: Baptiste’s “marvelous” artistry, her current non-happiness, Lemaitre’s jealousy over Garance’s persistent love for Baptiste, his willingness to inform Baptiste of Garance’s desire to see him during her brief stay in Paris, and his realization that his jealousy has now enabled him to play Othello. Backstage during the intermission, many things happen that effect the performance of the pantomime on stage. Lemaitre and Baptiste meet after many years and praise each other’s success as theater artists. They join Baptiste’s wife, Nathalie. The actor praises Nathalie for her beauty, though Nathalie says she is not beautiful but happy. Lemaitre also meets the couple’s young son. The insidious ragpicker Jericho (Pierre Renoir [1885-1952]) arrives, urging Baptiste to move away in disgust with Lemaitre. An informant, a spreader of malignant gossip, and dealer in contraband goods, Jericho complains to the stage manager about Baptiste “murdering” him every night in the pantomime and then complains that his sad fate is to inspire no one’s love. He informs Nathalie of Garance’s presence in Box 7, and she sends her little son to the box to inform Garance that his family is very happy, the implication being that Garance should stay away from Baptiste. As Baptiste in the wings prepares to go back on stage, Lemaitre reveals that Garance is watching the show and would like to see him again. The pantomime resumes inside the ballroom of the mansion with many couples waltzing and the Duchess (Nathalie) at the center. The Duchess drops her fan, which is the cue for Baptiste, in his new toreador-like costume but retaining his skullcap, to sweep onto the stage and retrieve it. He takes a position to dance with the Duchess, but freezes, thinking of Garance. In tight close up, Baptiste, with a memorable expression of painful renunciation, turns his white face away from the frightened Nathalie. He rushes off stage, abruptly terminating the performance and arousing dismay from the audience. He goes to Garance’s box, but she has gone. In a subsequent scene, Baptiste broods in the hotel room where he first declared his love for Garance. When the concierge brings him supper, she suggests that he cure his depression by attending a performance of Lemaitre’s Othello. It is during the intermission of the play that Baptiste and Garance run into each other, observed by Lacenaire, who turns the rendezvous into a humiliating “scandal” for de Montray and himself. Here, more than in the rope pantomime, the actions of characters outside of the pantomime overwhelm the action on stage and even destroy it. Pantomime seems too fragile to absorb or even to survive the “passions” of those who perform or watch it, although the same might also be said of Lemaitre’s bombastic performance as Othello. Pantomime mobilizes the passions of the characters without representing the passions beyond a perfunctory, stereotypical set of gestures. This is not a weakness of the film, for which pantomime is merely a sign of a “poetic” spirit that actually conceals what only the film can see: the destructive interlinking of real and simulated passions. Barrault performs Pierrot masterfully, but as Baptiste outside of Pierrot, he is powerfully captivating, his speech exquisitely economical (compared with nearly everyone else), his movements elegant, precise, delicate, cautious, his smile, his gaze, even a slight turn of his head or a shift of his eyes, all seem like the inflections of a sublimely gifted artist who brings a majestic poetry to the body, to the character of Baptiste. It is Barrault/Baptiste, not Pierrot, who brings about the redemption of French pantomime. This point is fundamental in understanding how the film almost single-handedly rehabilitated the decadent, nearly extinct Pierrot figure, which then inspired, in the postwar years, the emergence of the mime school culture, guided by Decroux, that succeeded in dominating international perception of pantomime until the end of the century (cf. Him-Aquili 2012) [Film Still Series A]. 

            The haunting romantic aura projected by Barrault is the heart of the film, even if other characters, though splendidly acted, are more interesting or complex as characters (rather than as acting performances). Postwar audiences for the film, which were very large, believed that Barrault’s enchanting performance was due to his training in pantomime under Decroux, a belief reinforced by the partnership of Barrault and Decroux in constructing the pantomimic scenes. Indeed, the film earned for Barrault the reputation of being a great mime, even though after the film he seldom performed any pantomime. But Barrault’s enchanting performance became entangled in the strange political significance of the film, which further contributed to the rehabilitation of Pierrot. The making of the film in Nice and Paris during the Occupation entailed tremendous difficulties that Turk and Forbes have described extensively: film production resources were curtailed, weather, personal conflicts, and financial problems hobbled production, and both collaborators and members of the Resistance participated in the production, which necessitated much devious, stressful maneuvering on the part of Carné and his associates to avoid German interference (Turk 1989: 180ff.; Forbes 1997: 10-16). Upon its release in March 1945, the film simultaneously symbolized the Liberation of France from Nazi tyranny and France’s “tragic” accommodation of the Nazi Occupation. Arletty spent eighteen months in prison for treason because of her brazen love affair with a German Nazi officer. Carné himself faced interrogation because the film received financing from collaborationist and German sources. However, the immense popularity of the film assured its place in history as a monumental achievement that restored cultural glory to a humiliated France. The film takes a distinctly and entirely French subject, the theatrical milieu of the Funambules, and uses it as a metaphor from which the viewer may discern a political significance: in a milieu, in a society consumed by theater, pervaded with masked or concealed identities, and smothered with deceptions, illusions, dreams, and failures to love or inspire love, pantomime makes the act of “not speaking out” seem deeply poetic and romantic, the sign of an epochal tragic loneliness insofar as the solitary, melancholy figure of Pierrot totally dominates the film’s representation of pantomime. Les enfants du paradis perhaps represents best what Turk regards as the “unmitigated sadness” of Carné’s film work as a whole: “Equating individualism with abject solitude, [Carné’s films] suggest that human fulfillment resides not in maturity, critical consciousness, and emancipation, but in regression, dependence, and disengagement from the material world” (1989: 433). While one may easily apply this statement to the characters of Les enfants du paradis, with theater on stage, backstage, and in the audience signifying an ironic, collective desperation to negate this tragic loneliness, Barrault/Baptiste/Pierrot represents this “abject solitude” in its most romantic vein, as the heritage of a nation, a poetic defiance of societal constraints and yet a glamorous incarnation of defeat and lost happiness. But as Turk’s treatise demonstrates, this “unmitigated sadness” pervaded Carné’s films of the 1930s. The Occupation did not cause it; rather, the Occupation allowed it to achieve monumental, heroic grandeur in Les enfants du paradis. The abject solitude of the Barrault/Baptiste/Pierrot figure functioned beautifully as an icon of the existentialist philosophy that emanated from Paris across the Western world in the postwar years and defined much of Western culture until the 1970s. This philosophy, as explicated especially by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), proposed that human beings are fundamentally alone and responsible for their actions; they are “free” and cannot use God or the state or society to absolve them of responsibility for their own actions or the actions of others, otherwise they justify totalitarian catastrophes like Nazism in the name of some “higher meaning” for existence. Freedom is a condition of existence, not an ideal toward which humanity strives. Freedom makes one alone, yet obligated to respect the freedom of others, which means, as Sartre so memorably put it in the last line of his play No Exit (1944): “Hell is—other people!” But Les enfants du paradis invests this existential alienation—the failure of love to dissolve an inescapable aloneness—with a romantic grandeur and historical credibility that ironically and incongruously encouraged audiences to see the philosophy in continuity with the past and therefore as the persistent basis of a unified national identity. The film’s representation of pantomime helps explain why the mime culture that flourished in the postwar years was so backward looking, a restoration of a premodern “poetic” civilization, a variation on the solitary Pierrot figure that completely ignored modernistic developments in pantomime from outside of France and even from the huge adventure in pantomime provided by silent films. Decroux himself said: “I have invented nothing […] because I am hostile to novelty. […] I do not like novelty. When someone proposes something new, it is because they do not have the courage to value something old” (Decroux 2003: 80). Barrault brought pantomime to the film, but the film made pantomime in France as Decroux and Barrault defined it.

Film Still Series A: Scenes from Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du paradis (1944-1945). 1) Pantomime scene at the Funambules Theatre, with Nathalie (Maria Casares), Anselm Deburau (Etienne Decroux), and unidentified actor in lion’s costume. 2) Pantomime scene with Pierrot (Jean-Louis Barrault) falling in love with the statue of an ideal woman (Arletty). 3) In pantomime, Pierrot sees his ideal woman sail away with Harlequin (Pierre Brasseur). 4) Pierrot holds up the wash for Colombine (Maria Casares) with the rope by which he intended to hang himself. 5) Baptiste crosses out his Pierrot image in the mirror when he realizes that Garance cannot love him as he desires. 6) In the Marchand d’habits pantomime, Pierrot’s love for the ideal woman makes him vicious when he has no money to buy nice clothes to gain entry to the party where his love awaits; so he steals the clothes seller’s sword and stabs him. 7) Offstage, Pierrot usurps or effaces Baptiste as the center of domestic life. 8) In portraying Baptiste offstage, Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance is much more restrained physically than when he portrays Pierrot in the pantomimes on stage. Except when he takes a sword to the huge bouquet of flowers Count de Montray has given Garance, Baptist appears as a quiet, introspective, melancholic figure defined by his alluring economy of gesture. 9) Much of Baptiste’s character, as opposed to Pierrot’s characters, Carné and Barrault reveal through luminous close ups of greater emotional resonance and subtlety than any of the exaggerated actions performed by Pierrot in the Funambules pantomimes. The film was of immense importance in creating the “mime culture” of the 1950s to the 1980s, but it was Barrault’s romantic performance as Baptiste rather than his performance as Pierrot in the Funambules pantomimes that drove the enthusiasm for mime. 10) The Funambules pantomime performance with audience as imagined by Carné and art directors Léon Barsacq and Raymond Gabutti. Photos: Carné (2002). 

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