Sure, Julie, start with a French movie. My daughter distinctly told me not to do this, and I am distinctly deciding to ignore her.
The first time I saw Les Enfants du paradis, I had recently returned from a year abroad in France. The year itself had its ups and downs, but in the end, I loved le beau pays and didn’t want to leave. A few attempts to find work before my visa expired came up short. So, with no way to stay, it was back to the USA. Sad to say, I have never been back in France… yet. I do hope to change this in the near future.
That said, my experience with France kept growing from that point, and I did a master’s in French literature, taught, worked in French companies, all sorts of things that have kept me connected over the years.
The snob factor in loving l’Hexagone is indisputable. I have perhaps fallen victim to this. Well, not perhaps; I have. I do think that the French have a way of life that is in many ways superior. That said, they can be complete asses about it all, arrogant beyond belief, and annoyingly oppositional while still acting like sheep. But we all have our national characteristics that are less than desirable, and I am all too happy to make a nice bœuf bourgignon to get over any biases that may cause me ennui.
I had returned from France, and was experiencing culture shock. This was extremely hard for people I was around to understand, as I was the first person in my family to live abroad. My mom was an enormous anglophile, and my brother did end up in a pretty international situation himself later on. But in that time, in St. Louis, before internet and fast and affordable communications back and forth, my fascination with other countries seemed to bother people more than interest them, and that may have been at least partly my fault. I remember a particular night that my uncle offered to take us to a French restaurant, and it cost far more than my mom had expected, though he didn’t seem to mind. I was never a smoker, but felt compelled to join everyone else at the table in an after-dinner cigarette, back when that was still allowed. The shocked look on everyone’s face was unforgettable, and extremely satisfying to smug little me, but I can’t say it was winning me any popularity awards at home.
I had taken a film class in France, and as is typical in French humanities classes, we studied only a very few movies, but class discussions demanded a certain knowledge of context. We spent an entire year in another class studying Les Misérables, for example, but were expected to have read all of Hugo, Balzac (the professor’s personal favorite), Stendhal, and supporting criticism. Supporting work in English and German was advisable. For film, then, it was not enough to watch The Birds frame by frame; if if our professor casually mentioned a scene in one of Hitchcock’s early silent movies, every student in the class nodded as though they completely understood the reference. Maybe they did, but pretentious little bastards more likely were plotting some sort of highly persuasive information pumping from the one film nerd student who did know. So predictable.
In France, there is an enormous love of cinema, and some movie theaters are subsidized so that they can do things like devoting an entire night to an Ava Gardner retrospective, or showing obscure Wim Wenders movies to one or two people in the middle of the afternoon. It was a great chance to see many great films, a task much easier now with the internet, and not impossible back then with Blockbuster. But this was a different feeling. There were two theaters in Caen that I loved, particularly Ciné Lux, and I made it a point to pick up their schedule. It was impossible to see everything, and I happened to miss the showing of Les Enfants du paradis then. It is not a short movie, so you don’t find it everyday… weekly, perhaps, in Paris, but not daily in Caen. I heard about the movie numerous times during my year, though, and sought it out at Blockbusters when I was feeling particularly winsome about returning to the US.
I must digress, however, because the movies in France hold a distinct memory to me as a scene of violence. One night, shortly after midnight, some American friends (and a Portuguese girl) were leaving the Ciné Lux when a group of kids jumped us from behind. Most of us ran and avoided injuries, but the Portuguese girl disappeared (turned out she had just run home and gone to bed, leaving the rest of us to spend the night looking for her). Another guy from my home university was hurt badly. The thugs who jumped him were a group of out of work kids in their twenties who were out for a rowdy night of brawling, with brass knuckles. Back then, there was not really a term for PTSD, but the guy who was beat up by those kids was still jumpy a couple of years after the incident, and he developed a fascination with crime, prowling crack houses in St. Louis before settling into English literature and guitar. The incident happened in early December, and around Christmas, I received a note in the mail to report to Caen police to give a statement. My brother was in town, and had the rare tourist opportunity to watch a French policeman type his report on a manual typewriter, I believe in black and white. At least, that’s the way I remember it. The entire night was surreal, as was the police statement, and I had nightmares later after attempting to watch A Clockwork Orange–it was the most realistic depiction of that night I have ever seen, and up to then, I had forgotten just how scared I really was in the moment.
But I digress. Les Enfants du paradis was a film shot during the French Resistance, or more accurately, the Vichy government. This presented some challenges, to the point that Marcel Carné took great risks to his and his crew’s personal safety. The movie was too long, was moved between Paris and Nice, and cost an enormous sum. There are a few films I can think of whose creation is a story in itself (Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo), and this becomes a part of the legend. Set in 1830s Paris theatrical world of the Funambules, the movie is a world in itself, one that we climb into and absorb through the drama of Garance. Many men love Garance, but she loves her freedom more than she can love any one of them. Mimes, lovers, criminals, it is all spectacle, and we the moviegoers are, in fact, children gazing down from paradise–the paradis was the area with the cheap seats, the bleachers, where the true fans sat and cheered. Jacques Prévert wrote the script, and the poetry of the production is magical–a miracle, in fact.