This essay argues that the French actress Arletty, née Léonie Bathiat, engaged in a multifaceted and complex form of selfhood that profoundly influenced her role in the classic film of the French occupation period, Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, dir. Marcel Carné, France, 1945). Adopting Marcel Mauss's categories of the human mind, the author maintains that the relationship between Arletty's person, her star persona, and her function as a personnage (character) constitutes a unique form of aesthetic selfhood recognized by her contemporaries but largely unacknowledged by later critics. The author argues that Arletty's unique form of stardom—allowing her “self” to unite otherwise contrary attributes—anchors Enfants's reconciliatory influence over a society fragmented by war and enemy occupation. As the actress purportedly declared: “Si mon cœur est français, mon cul, lui, est international” (If my heart is French, my ass is international). Such was the public perception of Arletty, which the author contends allowed her to be at once “French” and “international” and thus adhere to categories that would be mutually exclusive for anyone else. Furthermore, this article analyzes Arletty's role at the heart of the symbolic mechanisms of Enfants, in which she embodies an aesthetic unity that evokes the possibility of transcending the ideological divisions of occupied and liberated France.
Hervé Picherit; A Strange Child of Paradise: The Artistry of Arletty's “Self” in Les enfants du paradis. Camera Obscura 1 May 2017; 32 (1 (94)): 93–127. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-3776879
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