Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mime and thief, performer and audience, in Children of Paradise

[In my “moments” column for The Hindu, a tribute to Marcel Carne’s breathtaking film Les Enfants du Paradis and to one of the greatest performances I have seen]

The man with the white-painted face sits on the stage, immobile, expressionless – like a puppet or a performing seal awaiting its turn in the limelight. But a close-up shows us that his eyes are becoming alert and focused. He has noticed something happening in the audience of carnival-goers watching him: a pickpocket is stealing someone’s watch.

When a woman is falsely accused of the theft, our performer calls out that he has witnessed the incident. He then proceeds to wordlessly enact what happened. Justice is served; the crowd enjoys the performance; the woman throws him a flower; slapstick comedy and gallantry become unlikely bedfellows.

This sequence, early in the 1945 French film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), is our introduction to one of the most captivating movie performances I have seen: Jean-Louis Barrault as the mime artist Baptiste. His enactment of the pickpocketing is splendid, but I also love that close-up, our first clue that this seemingly peripheral figure will be one of the film’s protagonists.

Most of all, I like how the scene reverses the gaze between performer and audience: someone whose job involves being looked at is looking right back into the crowd, seeing a story unfold there, and interpreting it. It feels so right in a film that is about the theatre as life, and life as a giant theatre.

When you become an Old Movie nerd in your early teens, discovering hundreds of world-cinema classics, you can get jaded over the years: hard to surprise, a little smug about your bank of knowledge. It’s rare, then, to see a celebrated classic for the first time in your forties and to feel the thrill you felt as an adolescent visiting film festivals or embassy libraries. I knew that Marcel Carne’s three-hour epic – about a group of infatuated men orbiting around a courtesan named Garance in the 1830s Parisian theatre world – was considered a milestone of French cinema, but I was unprepared for the impact it would have on me when I watched it during the recent Navrasa Duenda festival in Delhi.

This is the sort of film one expects to think of in terms of its grand setpieces – but while Children of Paradise has those, it is also a collection of memorable little gestures, skits and razor-sharp bits of dialogue. Its theatre setting is the perfect vehicle for commentaries on life vs performance, for observations on how we behave in private and in public, and how both modes can involve putting on an act. One character, a theatre director, is in a constant state of excitement backstage, behaving like he is himself in a farce or melodrama. A ragman wandering the street announces himself dramatically, creating new designations each time. People self-consciously analyze their thoughts and actions. Curtains rise, come down, or are brutally drawn aside.

And Barrault is among a superb cast of performers who bring these people – loosely based on real-life 19th century figures – to life. What I find intriguing about Baptiste is that he is most alive and expressive when he is wearing a mask or a costume. In one lovely pantomime, he plays a would-be suicide thwarted by people who come along wanting to use his rope for their own purposes (as a clothesline, or a skipping-rope), and this tragic-comic scenario reflects his own real state of mind. During another performance, he chances to look behind the curtain, sees the woman he loves embracing someone else, and freezes – thus revealing his true feelings mid-act.

But when offstage, he often comes across as inert and passive, and the film’s plot hinges on this passivity. Despite being besotted with Garance, he fails to act on his impulse to spend the night with her in the boarding house they are both staying in. Infected by idealism or reticence, he backs away; another swain steps up; and the stage is set for a multi-pronged story about jealousy, pathos and retribution.

Watching Barrault as Baptiste, I was reminded of the sinister master of ceremonies in the 1972 Cabaret, magnificently expressive when performing numbers like “Willkommen” and “If You Could See Her” but never seen as a person in his own right, with a life away from the stage. I also thought of the great scene in Govind Nihalani’s 1984 Party (another story about people who wear many masks) where an old man lurches about a stage, declaiming fiery lines from the play Natasamrat – but later removes layers of makeup to reveal his real face, which is much younger and blander. And wearier too: he has expended so much energy on playing someone else, there is little left to go out into the world and “play” himself.

[Related posts: Govind Nihalani's Party; Bob Fosse's Cabaret. My earlier columns for The Hindu are here]

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