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Two Blu-rays from Criterion: CHILDREN OF PARADISE and EATING RAOUL

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The story behind Marcel Carne’s landmark Children of Paradise threatens to outdo the plot of the actual film; not only was Children of Paradise the most expensive French film of all time in 1945 (think of it as the Titanic of its day, or a Gallic-flavored Gone with the Wind), but it also grew from great social and political unrest.  How great, you ask?  I’ll retort: Carne began production during the Nazi occupation of France, and he did so using a cast and crew that included numerous Jews and French resistance fighters on the run from the Nazi menace.

To stay under the radar, Carne pulled out all the stops; he would break a set down and move it to another location at a moment’s notice (and again, think HUGE budget.  Imagine moving the ship from Titanic back and forth along a 600-mi. stretch); he would hide dallies and film copies throughout the French countryside; and he even pretended that he was making two movies when the Nazis decreed that no French film could exceed ninety minutes in length (Carne’s final cut runs a whopping 190 minutes, and it bears the marks of this deception: Carne calls the first half Boulevard of Crime and the second half The Man in White, and the characters change enough between the two halves that Carne could argue that the actors were playing different people).

The most nerve-wracking moment came when the Nazis forced him to hire pro-Nazi craftsmen and extras – while Carne could keep some of the more controversial figures in his company hidden (such as production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma), often he’d find his combination Axis/Allied crew working side-by-side, blissfully unaware of each other’s political affiliations.

Such circumstances could only produce one of two things: a mess or a masterpiece, and Children of Paradise definitely belongs in the latter category.  It’s a film of great artistic tensions, each seemingly at odds with its opposite – epic yet intimate, cynical yet tender, worldly yet fantastic – yet you never see the seams.  These dialectics exist peaceably, much like its divided crew, and they reflect Carne’s bold, humanist objective.

The film takes the form of a romantic rectangle.  At the primary angle: Arletty’s wry, sensual courtesan Garance, beloved by all, though this movie focuses on a few.  A struggling actor (Pierre Brasseur) with dreams of ambition.  A count (Louis Salou) who equates wealth with power.  An unrepentant rogue and scoundrel (Marcel Herrand) desperate to secure Garance as his own.  And, most touchingly, a dejected mime (Jean-Louis Barrault) who sees Garance as perfection personified.

One look at this setup, and it should be no surprise that the whole endeavor ends in tears, a fact that most French citizens knew going into Children of Paradise.  Carne drew inspiration from an infamous scandal that rocked the tabloids during the July Monarchy, though the specifics are far less important than the mood Carne casts.  This is a film of vast scope, one where an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere hides unfathomable darkness, and the melodrama is so palpable you could sample it with a spoon.  You feel Children of Paradise in your bones.

Criterion’s Blu-ray showcases Pathe’s 2011 restoration of the film, and the results are fairly impressive; there’s some soft, less textured work here and there, but on the whole, this is a luscious, detailed piece of work.  So it goes with the immersive LPCM monaural soundtrack.

With the three-plus-hour movie on one Blu-ray (plus a great commentary from film historians Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron), we get a whole disc devoted to bonus supplements.  They include an introduction from director Terry Gilliam; two hour-long behind-the-scenes documentaries (“Once Upon a Time: Children of Paradise” and “The Birth of Children of Paradise”); a video essay (“The Look of Children of Paradise”) on the stunning art design; the original U.S. trailer; a restoration demonstration featurette; and a separate booklet containing insights from film historian Dudley Andrew and Carne himself.

We switch gears completely for Paul Bartel’s 1982 comedy Eating Raoul.  Eating Raoul doesn’t have a cool backstory, a super-huge budget, or a creative team staffed by Nazi sympathizers; I’m sure there’s an interesting anecdote to be found about the film’s production (in fact, I know there is – the supplements are full of stuff on Bartel’s run-and-gun style of moviemaking), but at the end of the day, this low-budget, fleet (it’s only one ninety-minute movie), and sloppy little comedy is pretty much the antithesis to Carne’s epic masterwork.

Well, save for one telling detail.  Children of Paradise is as cynical a film as you could ever hope to see, and Eating Raoul matches it beat for rancid beat.  Bartel’s heroes are Mary and Paul Bland (genre favorite Mary Woronov and Bartel himself), and they more-than live up to their last name; these square, sexless nobodies want to live the high-life, but they’re both too dull to fit in with either the yuppies or the swingers dominating 1980’s Los Angeles (in a wonderful early scene, Paul loses his dead-end job at a liquor store for recommending a decidedly too-classy brew to a decidedly unclassy customer).

As such, the Blands come to the only logical solution: they start killing swingers for money.  Their spree starts out accidentally enough – a drunk tries to rape Mary, and Paul comes to her rescue – but before long, they’re luring the sexually uninhibited to their apartment building with promises of decadent lovemaking and then dumping the bodies into the trash compactor.

Admittedly, this is low-rent stuff – think John Waters, except on a budget and minus the borderline pornographic details – and Bartel doesn’t always manage the wide tonal shifts with the surest of hands; the anesthetized dryness of the Blands contrasts uneasily with the more effusive performances from the likes of Buck Henry, Edie McClurg, Ed Begley Jr., and Robert Beltran, who gives a weird, unseemly energy to the title role of Raoul (no points for guessing what happens to him).  Still, Eating Raoul has a grungy, satirical power that can’t be denied.  This thing is rotten to its core, and I can see why its odd mix of horror and humor has made it an enduring cult classic.

Criterion’s Blu-ray has given the movie a decent HD transfer and a solid LPCM audio track.  Neither is perfect – Bartel produced the film for somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000, so picture and sound will never be Lawrence of Arabia-crisp – but they are mostly clean and clear and get the job done.

For features, we get a commentary with screenwriter Richard Blackburn, production designer Robert Schulenberg, and editor Alan Toomayan; an archival interview with Woronov and Bartel; a half-hour retrospective about the film’s making (“Cooking Up Raoul”); a gag reel and trailer; and, best of all, two amusing short films from Bartel pre-dating Eating Raoul (“The Secret Cinema,” which has an interview with Schulenberg, and “Naughty Nurse”).  This being Criterion and all, the disc also has an essay from critic David Ehrenstein.

I can’t imagine two more dissimilar critiques of humanity than Children of Paradise and Eating Raoul, but that’s Criterion for you – they make the uncomplimentary fit one another.

Click HERE for Amazon’s Children of Paradise Blu-ray listing, and HERE for Eating Raoul‘s.