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Children of Paradise

By Sascha Feinstein

My parents, both abstract expressionists, never took me to kid movies. In general, they treated me more like a friend. I saw my first Disney film overseas, at the age of twenty-nine, and by accident. (The theater in Singapore hadn’t changed the marquee; I thought I had purchased tickets for My Cousin Vinny and instead saw Aladdin. Talk about a whole new world!) But growing up, I mainly attended the movies my parents wished to see. Usually, this took place during summers on the Cape. They’d place blankets in the back of the Volvo station wagon, cruise to the local drive-in, and encourage me to sleep, which happened swiftly. But occasionally during the non-summer months in Manhattan, they’d take me with them to a matinee, and I remember in particular an experience from the fall of 1971, when I was eight. The three of us walked around the corner to a theater on Broadway—The New Yorker, long since defunct—and my father bought tickets to a movie whose title held some promise for me: Children of Paradise.

Director Marcel Carné had filmed and produced his masterpiece in France during the Second World War, from the summer of ’43 through January of ’45. Set in the 1820s, the black-and-white movie starred the popular and attractive Arletty (one name, like Cher) and the mime work of Jean-Louis Barrault. Most major film critics have slathered the film with praise. Pauline Kael described it as “a sumptuous epic.” Roger Ebert wrote: “Few achievements in the world of cinema can equal it.” Leonard Matlin called it a “Timeless masterpiece of film making.” In his notes for the 2002 Criterion edition of the film, critic and biographer Peter Cowie refers to it as “the ultimate exemplar of classical filmmaking, great acting, and a perfectly constructed screenplay.”

My father, who had seen the movie many years earlier, would later explain that he recalled images of street performers and dancers during carnival festivities, as well as Barrault’s acheivements as a mime, and that he thought those qualities of the movie would appeal to me. I was, after all, a Pisces—an introverted, sensitive, lover of the arts. In the past, I had had no difficulty finding ways to engage myself in my parents’ activities.

And so the movie began, with its dramatic orchestration of drums and trumpets, and, to establish one of its primary themes (All the world’s a stage), a closed theater curtain. The credits began to roll. I saw the name Pierre Renoir and perked up. I loved Renoir—the painter, that is, Pierre-Auguste Renoir—and had hopes that the black-and-white curtain would shortly give way to lush, romantic imagery. I’d spent considerable time looking at the Renoirs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in a flash my memory brought me back to fleshy, peach nudes and that wonderful, large canvas (Madame Charpentier with  Her Children) where the woman looks like her big, fluffy Newfoundland.

I peered up at my mother and asked, “Is this movie about Renoir?”

“No,” she said.

I knew I’d seen his name. “Is he one of the actors?”

“No, it’s not the painter.”

The credits, which last for almost four minutes, continued to scroll, and I felt I had time for a follow-up. Plus, I thought I had something on my mother, that she had missed it. I leaned past her and whispered loudly, “Dad. Is this about Renoir? I saw his name.”

“No,” he told me. “It’s his son.”

“Is he a painter, too?” I asked.

“He’s an actor.” My father moved his hand in the air as though petting a cat. “Watch the movie.”

Then the black-and-white curtain rose onto a black-and-white street fair in Paris. A tightrope walker hovered a few feet over the crowd. A shirtless man in leopard Tarzan shorts raised an iron bar, each end weighted with cannonballs. A clownish figure wearing tuxedo tails and boxer shorts guided a monkey that walked on stilts. Children swung in a carousel of swans. This wasn’t so bad. There was a lot of crowd noise, almost enough to silence the musicians at the fair. And then the people started speaking in French. And then my life ended.

The whimsy of the street fair soon enough gives way to quite a tangled love story, and with every passing minute—with every grainy segue—I found myself disappearing into a black hole of boredom. After twenty minutes, when some man’s watch gets stolen and Barrault mimes a reenactment of the crime, I knew I didn’t have a shot at comprehending the drama. And what if I had? What if I had known French—would an eight-year-old boy care about a mime and a messy love story? Of course not. But not having language made the movie all the more intolerable since I couldn’t follow the narrative or even weigh the importance of characters. When a blind beggar turns out to be a charlatan, regaining complete vision once he enters the town bar, how could I possibly understand his importance as a purely thematic figure? I wanted to know about the new plot twist.

“I thought he was blind,” I whispered to my mother.

“He was faking.”

“Why?”

“To make money.”

I doubt that I actually asked how he fit into the plot; by that point, I had no idea what anybody was doing. It didn’t help that Barrault as a white-faced mime seemed to be a different character entirely without the makeup. Nope—didn’t put that together. And that’s when I started a series of requests to know the time, to know exactly how many minutes had ticked away. The questions weren’t well received. After the fourth, I knew I had to stop, even though this verged on child abuse.

I don’t know how old one needs to be to embrace metaphor and theme over linear plot, but I couldn’t do that at eight, nor did I find ancient footage of amorous desire the least bit enticing. An hour into the movie, Barrault and Arletty stroll the Parisian night in a scene of heightened French romanticism. He expresses his love; she leans into him, her heart-shaped silver earrings flickering in the evening light. They kiss deeply. I remember saying, “Oh my God . . .” Like Barrault later in the film, I had suicidal thoughts.

So you can imagine my euphoric relief when, after an hour and forty minutes, the curtain that opened the movie finally folded downwards from the top of the screen to the bottom. My whole body released itself the way it does when a raging fever subsides after hours or days of punishing discomfort. “Finally,” I said, exhaling and drawing out each vowel to make the word count, the thought heard, the feeling known.

That’s when my parents explained this was the end of Part I.

I never forgave them, or, more accurately, I took pleasure in recounting the criminally boring experience, although not to the kids my own age, since they didn’t seem to care. No one in my third grade class had been subjected to a foreign film. They already considered me something of “the other,” what with my parents being artists; this simply solidified their evaluation that we were weirdos. At school, I had no audience. But for my parents’ friends, I’d mock the mime, mock the French kisses. I’d have the group howling. I wanted the whole world to know that I had been subjected to cultural torture and would stop only when my father said, “Okay, that’s enough.”

In the summertime, my parents dragged me to even more movies—Fellini’s Roma, Fiddler on the Roof, The Omega Man, Patton—but these were drive-ins, and I could fall asleep in the car. The back of the ’58 Volvo station wagon, in fact, made for quite a nice little fort. They’d pad it with blankets and pillows. I really dug it. I slept easily and deeply.

The only unfortunate experience occurred during the summer of ’72 when we drove to see The Godfather. I had spent the afternoon with my friend, Eric, playing in the underbrush behind his house in Brewster. The movie began, and I remember the sweeping orchestration, the fanfare, the warm Coppola browns, and the private meetings with Brando. It did nothing for me, and I nodded off. But I woke up because I kept scratching my ear, and as I regained consciousness, I realized I’d pulled off a tick.

On the screen, James Caen was about to learn that his sister had been beaten again.

“I’ve got a tick,” I said from the back of the car. My parents hadn’t expected my voice at all.

“What’s that? Go to sleep.”

“No, I just found a tick in my ear.”

My mother sprang to attention and told me to climb over the seats so she could take a look, while James Caen drove like a maniac onscreen, completely focused on pulverizing his brother-in-law.

“I think I’ve got two,” I said.

“Let me take a look. Come over here.”

“I think I’ve three,” I added, climbing over the seats. I handed her a tick, which she tossed out the window. “I know I’ve got more.”

Caen’s car paused at the toll booth. My mother started picking at my ear with her fingernail, checking my hair. And then the machine guns opened fire, and I wanted to watch, wanted to see the action. The windshield cracking, Tommy guns blasting their castanet rhythms, the side of Caen’s car fully ventilated (“Hold still,” my mother said) as Caen emerged from the sedan. My mother kept shifting my hair, checking my ear (“Was it your left or your right? I don’t see a thing”), Caen now writhing on the asphalt in an electrified dance.

“Keep your head down,” my father said.

I got sent back to my nest and woke up again sometime later, insisting I’d found more ticks in my ear. By the last count, I’d plucked five or six, but we never found the others. I kept crawling to the front seat, but we couldn’t find those ticks.

From the drive-in experiences, I remember the starts of many films (George C. Scott standing in front of the huge American flag, Charlton Heston cruising the post-apocalyptic city streets in his fancy red convertible) but I didn’t finish seeing them for many years, and that’s been an interesting experience—particularly this last week when, almost four decades later, I made myself watch Children of Paradise. Truth be told, the first half still lagged for me, and there’s something to be said for Desson Howe’s Washington Post review: “its 188 minutes don’t exactly jet by.” I fought fatigue. But I suspect that had something to do with the unusual amount of expended energy: while reading the subtitles and watching the movie, I tried to interpret the film simultaneously in the present and the past. What would have bored me the most at eight? What do I appreciate now?

Recalling my first experience, I laughed when the curtain dropped to mark the end of Part I, but I also wondered if I had the energy and focus to launch directly into Part II. I decided to go for it—not to worry about remembering my eight-year-old self and just finish the experience—and a curious thing happened: I got into the movie. In fact, I loved it. I don’t know if I’m sorry or pleased that my parents aren’t alive to know this, but I will watch it again, and with pleasure.

My parents and I returned to The New Yorker theatre in the fall of ’72 for yet another foreign film. I was nine, now—still scarred from Children of Paradise and actively irritated at the thought of another soul-crushing afternoon. If my mother offered a bribe of sorts, I can’t recall the agreement; it’s far more likely she simply pointed out that they didn’t do this often and would appreciate my understanding. Children of Paradise—or Children from Hell, as I called it—ran over three hours; this film didn’t even last two. It had color, and my mother insisted that the Italian actor, Giancarlo Giannini, had a wonderfully expressive face. So, unhappily but dutifully, I joined my parents for a screening of Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi.

Although I had no concept of the plot at the time, being still limited by the speed of my subtitle-reading skills, I can now provide a brief summary of the action through the first eighty minutes. Giancarlo hates his life, and for good reason. He’s got a lousy, backbreaking job and a wife who’s so frigid he can barely stand to touch her, even though she’s fairly hot and he badly wants a child. He loses his job, heads for Turin, finds employment, falls in love with a babe, and knocks up his mistress. Now Giancarlo’s a very happy man. To keep up appearances of matrimony, he makes a rendezvous to Sicily—only to find that his wife’s pregnant! Giancarlo’s out of his skin with anger. Rather than separate and enjoy individual lives, he allows his furious, Sicilian sense of revenge to overwhelm logic: His singular option, he decides, is to knock up the wife of the man who impregnated his no-longer-frigid spouse.

I think I would have enjoyed this film had I understood the plot. My mother tried to fill me in from time to time, but she had to concentrate, too; in her defense, it’s not easy to simultaneously read subtitles, watch the film, and explain the action to a child while you continue to read and watch. So I couldn’t enjoy the ridiculousness of Giancarlo Giannini’s plan to cuckold his cuckolder, but the proposition scene slays me now. Dressed in a sharp dark suit, black fedora and shades, he awaits his prey outside a school building. He’s shaved the corners of his mustache to a classy triangle. He’s dressed to kill, and when she emerges from the building, he moves behind her with catlike dexterity.

“You’re beautiful,” he purrs in Italian. “You drive me crazy.”

The object of his feigned desire is built like a Carro Armato P40. She rotates her machine-gun mounted turret and dismisses him without a second thought as she grinds forward with children in hand. Her hulking physique’s pressed into a suit the color of steel, and when she rounds the building’s corner, we see for the first time an enormous boil-of-a-beauty mark—larger than a nickel, smaller than a quarter—implanted on her right cheek. Unfazed by her staggering ugliness, Giancarlo unleashes his overtures, and as the camera zooms to her face, the lens activates the mole’s dimensions, widening its circumference and plumping out its girth. She snarls and snaps at him—Niente!—and suddenly, the camera films her from behind: one could set a bottle of Chianti on her buttocks. Then the Italian chase music kicks in—half tango, half screaming banshee—as she torments the city streets with her fat shoes. Giancarlo’s relentless, whispering so close to her ear you can almost smell her through his nose.

In the next scene, probably the following day, he enters a sewing sweatshop and finds her working solo in the back. “I’m burning for you,” he says. Then he takes off his glasses to give her sex eyes, but she remains obdurate and implacable, her nostrils flaring within a monumental head capped with wiry black hair. Finally, though, she cracks: if he’ll leave, she’ll meet him tomorrow at four in the afternoon.

It’s an hour and twenty-five minutes into the film. I still have no idea what’s going on and am bored beyond complaint; I’m a nine-year-old corpse seated in a cushioned coffin. They’re now at a church, and I don’t care one bit—although she’s mercifully covered up: black dress, black blouse, black hat with veil, even large sunglasses. She’s bickering about her wretched husband, although to me she just sounds like a chattering monkey. Yes, it’s another Children from Hell experience, one made barely more palatable because of color film, but Dantean nonetheless.

A minute or two later, they’re tangoing outside a rental shack on the shore, the music as corny as their footwork. She continues to prattle ceaselessly, and I am ready to call my own time of death—but my parents, to my amazement, have been chuckling ever since the hunt began.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, irritated both by the movie and the fact that I couldn’t understand the humor.

Then Giancarlo grabs her and tries to force her carcass into the love shack. Much screaming ensues while he clutches her waist and wrestles with her the way a man might tussle with a wild boar. Still hollering in a soprano screech, she falls right on top of him—and that, I remember vividly, made me laugh. It hadn’t been worth the ninety minutes of drudgery, but, yes, I laughed.

From the floor of this sleazy love nest decorated with a menagerie of Catholic art and trinkets, Giancarlo strains to winch her body across the mattress, a welterweight taking on a Sumo. I’m laughing and laughing harder as she tries to stop him. Finally, she grabs his collar with both hands and consents, her bubbly mole almost erupting in the camera’s close-up.

The tango music returns as they begin to undress, lustfully glaring at each other. She pulls down her shoulder straps and stands, all the while staring him down. For a moment, the camera pans to the holy Mother Mary and baby Jesus in the springtime painting that blesses the bed, and then we’re back to the seduction—to one of my favorite moments in motion picture history.

Having removed her scarf and blouse, she stands with her back to the audience and pulls her black dress overhead to reveal circus-tent underpants. Giancarlo’s eyes widen. No bra, just a huge expanse of back. And now the panties come down, revealing the most wrinkled ass I have ever seen. I’m howling now, utterly apoplectic, my pre-adolescent voice ringing throughout The New Yorker. Wertmüller, knowing the shot’s a winner, repeats the footage three times so that the wrinkles tumble and unfold over and over and over again. My body’s convulsing, my diaphragm seizing up; my mother’s placed a hand over my mouth. She’s laughing, too, but she’s a bit embarrassed because I’m the only kid in the audience.

At the sight of her colossal glutes, Giancarlo blinks—four times, hard, each one seemingly longer than the last. The beast messes with her hair and turns her head in profile, highlighting the mole like a tumor on a CAT scan, and Giancarlo, after deciding with resignation to leave his sleeveless tee-shirt on, crawls into bed and clutches the sheets with both fists. And then, in a moment of cinematic genius, Wertmüller switches to a dramatically wide-angled lens so that the sheets at the bottom of the screen sprawl like an expansive desert, with tiny Giancarlo way off in the distance.

Enter an albino hippo. She crawls onto the bed so that all we see at first are her planetary butt cheeks. They fill almost fifty percent of the movie screen.

By now, my mother has me in a headlock so both her hands can cover my mouth, but I’m ripping them away partly because I need to breathe. Every time her fingers slip, I squeal and scream, snorting as I catch my spastic breath, my ribs aching, my face now completely wet with tears.

The Mole Monster peers at the cowering Giancarlo and says, “I’m not used to this. What should I do?” Seconds later, her panoramic ass fills the screen again. Then, from below, the camera highlights her fleshy breasts, and she lands on him like a WWF wrestler making a final slam. Giancarlo’s gasping for air; I’m gasping for air. It was a highlight of my childhood. For those few minutes, and for the days that followed, I’d found Paradise.


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