The great French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert wrote many films (more than 20 in total, including several animated features), but his reputation endures principally because of his scripts for two masterpieces – Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) and Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) – which between them tell the story of France before World War II and during it, showing first the situation in France ahead of the war and then the extraordinarily imaginative attempts by many French people to resist Nazi occupation.
Prévert was born just after the start of the 20th century (on 4 February 1900) and lived almost to the end of it (dying on 11 April 1977). During his 77 years, he became a central figure in several quintessentially French artistic movements: first in surrealism, as he befriended and collaborated with the likes of Marcel Duchamp; then in cinema, writing scripts for such great French directors as Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné (who directed Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and Les Enfants du Paradis respectively); and finally in French popular music, as many of his poems were translated into song by such diverse vocalists as Yves Montand, Serge Gainsbourg and even Iggy Pop, whose fantastic and fantastical 2009 “French jazz album” Preliminaires culminated in a musical version of Prévert’s poem “Les feuilles mortes” (“autumn leaves”).
It was Prévert’s involvement with surrealism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and particularly his participation in the protest movement, Groupe Octobre, that led him into cinema. The first film whose script he contributed to was a 1933 musical called Ciboulette. What is more notable than the film itself is that during its production Prévert first worked with its art director, Alexandre Trauner. The two men became firm friends, working together on several films, including Les Enfants du Paradis, and ultimately they would be buried next to each other.
After the relatively undistinguished Ciboulette, Prévert was given the opportunity to work on something that was much more in tune with his own artistic and political leanings; indeed, it was almost the embodiment of his artistic and political views. That film was Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and its director, the great Jean Renoir (who had already made classics such as Boudu Saved from Drowning), always claimed that it was effectively a collaboration between himself and Groupe Octobre, and so it was natural that he would employ Prévert, one of the group’s most prominent members, as its scriptwriter.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and Les Enfants du Paradis are very different films in many respects, but one great unifying theme that they share is the importance of art, including writing, especially when life is at its grimmest (as it was in France for much of the period between 1935 and 1945). The titular hero of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is himself a frustrated writer, who only finds an outlet for his work when the disreputable and dictatorial owner of the publishing firm in which he works fakes his own death to escape from his creditors. As the firm faces closure, its remaining staff, including Lange, decide to form a co-operative (an idea that was very much in vogue in France at the time, leading to the electoral success of the left-wing Popular Front later in 1935) and publish completely new material. That material includes the cowboy stories of Monsieur Lange, which although supposedly set in America’s Wild West are actually often based on the real-life experiences of the firm’s French workers.
Finally, like Prévert himself, Monsieur Lange is a successful author, but in a twist worthy of one of his Westerns the publishing firm’s original owner “returns” from the dead to try and cash in on his employees’ success. Lange, unwilling to return to the mundane life of a clerk and appalled by the owner’s callous exploitation of his workers and their dreams, shoots him dead and along with his beloved Valentine, a female neighbour who has also become entranced by his stories, flees the scene of the crime and heads for Belgium.
What really makes Le Crime de Monsieur Lange so satisfying as a film script is that it is one of the great screenplays about storytelling, both written and oral. It opens with Lange and Valentine arriving at an inn near the Belgian border, where the regular customers identify him as the man from the “wanted” posters that have been put up all over France. Effectively, Valentine is forced to plead for Lange’s life by telling his story, which obviously has echoes of Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, who told tales to maintain her callous husband’s interest and thus stay alive. Like Scheherazade, so persuasive is Valentine that the locals eventually accept Lange’s innocence and allow him and Valentine to complete their escape.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange was a huge success in France, sealing Renoir’s reputation as the country’s greatest director and establishing Prévert as one of its finest new writers. However, despite that success and despite continuing to write films over the next ten years, including during the Nazi occupation of France from 1940 onwards, it would only be at the end of that decade that Prévert would write another film that truly bore comparison – both in commercial success and artistic merit – to Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. That film was the even more extraordinary Les Enfants du Paradis.
Les Enfants du Paradis is one of the greatest French films, if not the very greatest. Francois Truffaut, for one, thought it was incomparable, famously saying, “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise”. And it is also one of those rare but remarkable films for whom the off-screen story of its making is almost as remarkable as the story it told on screen. Les Enfants du Paradis was filmed in 1944, when much of France was still under Nazi occupation or controlled by the Nazi collaborators in the Vichy Government. Consequently, like several other major artistic productions in France at the time (including works by the two Jeans, Cocteau and Genet), it sought to use a story set in the past to tell the story of everyday life under Nazi occupation.
Les Enfants du Paradis is set in the 1830s and 1840s, and it tells the story of a “love quadrangle”, whereby one beautiful female performer, Garance (played by Arletty, the ultimate French femme fatale), is pursued at different times, and with varying degrees of success, by four different men: a mime artist; an actor; a writer; and an aristocrat. As in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, the writer in Les Enfants du Paradis, Lacenaire, is really a criminal; he is ostensibly a scrivener (someone who could produce legal documents), but that is only a cover for his own illegal activities. It was this duality that first fascinated Prévert. When the film’s director, Marcel Carné, originally broached the idea of a film about the golden age of French theatre, Prévert was apparently cool on it, particularly because he was no fan of mime and apparently hated the idea of making a mime artist a hero. However, he was drawn to the real historical figure of Lacenaire and saw his character as his entrée to the world of Les Enfants du Paradis. As Prévert put it years later, “They (the Germans) will not let me do a movie about Lacenaire, but I can put Lacenaire in a film about Debureau (the mime artist)”.
Having found this way into the story, Prévert, along with the film’s other key creators – Carné, his old friend Trauner, who made incredibly vertiginous sets to recreate the world of “the children of the gods” (the poor theatre-goers who sat in the highest and most distant seats), and Jean-Louis Barrault, who both played the mime Debureau and supposedly conceived and wrote most of his key sequences – created an entire cinematic world, using the milieu of 19th century theatre as a mirror to examine the contemporary obsessions and intrigues of Nazi-occupied France, without evoking the ire of the Nazi/Vichy censors. Thus, Les Enfants du Paradis, one of the greatest films about acting and performance, is itself almost a form of “performance art”: ostensibly a period drama, but like the best period dramas really a commentary on its own time.
After the liberation of France and the eventual end of the war, Prévert continued to write for films, but increasingly he concentrated his energy on his own poetry and on animations, especially those made by his close friend and artistic collaborator, Paul Grimault, including Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), which was made in 1947. In fact, Prévert’s final film was another collaboration with Grimault, Le Roi et l’oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird). It was only released in 1980, three years after his death, and at the first night Grimault famously kept the seat next to him in the front row empty, in memory of and tribute to his great friend.
To many French people, it may seem odd, even perverse (and how often Prévert must have experienced his name being mis-spelled or misheard as “pervert”), to concentrate on Jacques Prévert the screenwriter, when he is primarily regarded in his own country as a poet and his most famous works are collections of poetry, including Paroles (Words) (1946). But Prévert was also a great screenwriter and in the finest films he wrote, particularly Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and Les Enfants du Paradis, he brought his unique poetry to the screen, not only in the dialogue of the characters but in the strange, at times almost surreal, plotting of the stories. In so doing, he became arguably the first great European screenwriter and the spiritual father of his many successors, who include Jean-Claude Carrière, Christopher Hampton and even Harold Pinter.