After the curtain rises on the screen, the camera sweeps through a boulevard teeming with crime and theater to meet the central characters. First we see a sinisterly prophetic old-clothes man, J�richo (Pierre Renoir). Next, the beautiful Garance (mysterious Arletty) portrays the Naked Truth in a peepshow. Her perhaps lover Lacenaire (the snarling Marcel Herrand), a budding misanthrope, playwright, thief, and “a little bit of a murderer,” sells spoons stolen by his henchman Avril to J�richo. Fr�d�rick Lema�tre (Pierre Brasseur), a nervy novice actor, comes seeking a job at the pantomime theater, the Funambules (in between trying to pick up Garance or anything else in skirts). (�Funambules� means a place where people walk a tightrope—and that is the very first image in this film. It is both “theater” and “life,” both a scene on the street and the name of a theater.)
Baptiste, played by Jean-Louis Barrault, the greatest French actor of his generation, is the seeming idiot of a famous family of mimes, the Deburaus. The daughter of the theater owner, though, Nathalie (Maria Casar�s), loves him anyway. Baptiste's father leaves him outside as advertisement for the show, too stupid, says his father, to act in it himself. (Incidentally, the senior Deburau is played by �tienne Decroux, the founder of twentieth-century mime, who trained Barrault for his role as Baptiste.) Baptiste, despite his father, is smart enough to pantomime Lacenaire�s pickpocketing a watch so as to free Garance from a policeman who is about to arrest her for the theft. The crowd is delighted, and Garance gives him a rose which he treasures.
We've just seen one of the clich�s: Baptiste is the “oaf son” or the “third son” of many a folktale. We are delighted when he scores a triumphant and unexpected success. We identify with him, I think, out of our own feelings of inadequacy.
The two feuding families who do the pantomime at the Funambules break into a fight. One family quits, and Baptiste and Fr�d�rick get their chances to go onstage. They become friends, and Baptiste finds Fr�d�rick lodgings at his rooming-house with Mme. Hermine (the buxom landlady, whom Fr�d�rick immediately seduces). Baptiste, however, prowls the streets looking for inspirations. He finds a beggar who pretends to be blind, and together they go to a low dive.
After his stage success, Baptiste enjoys another—with Garance. At that tough dive, he invites her to dance, leading her away from her date, the menacing Lacenaire. �Mon ange,� Lacenaire calls her, my guardian angel (part of the gods-theme of this film set in a parody of Paradise). She may be his mistress, maybe without sex with the perhaps impotent, perhaps homosexual Lacenaire. To avenge his master�s honor, Lacenaire�s bully-boy Avril throws Baptiste out the window of the bar. But Baptiste comes back and demolishes Avril—the oaf son triumphs again. Baptiste is so idealistic, however, he does not bed Garance that night (despite her unbuttoning invitation). Instead, when she undresses, ready to make love, he flees. She turns to Fr�d�rick next door. That night, and, while Baptiste continues to idealize her, she, unknown to him, becomes the mistress of his easygoing, flirtatious friend.
One day, Baptiste is playing a lovelorn Pierrot in a pantomime he has written—a silent and moving spectacle about an idealistic lover�s suicide (himself, really). He looks offstage and sees Fr�d�rick and Garance all too obviously �together.� Miserable already, he now realizes they are lovers and he is not. He falls into despair, to the consternation of Nathalie, herself suffering from her own unrequited love for Baptiste. At the same time, Garance, bored with Fr�d�rick and respectful of Nathalie�s love for Baptiste, finds her own situation intolerable. Accused again of one of Lacenaire�s crimes, she flees to the protection of a titled admirer, Edouard, comte de Montray. Theatrical curtain. End of Part I.
The second �act� begins. Again, after the ritual three knocks, a curtain rises, this time a very posh curtain. A second series of title cards recapitulates the plot of the first half, and the last card sets the new scene, �Several years have passed.�
The second �act� begins. Again, there are the three knocks and the curtain rises, this time a very posh curtain. A second series of title cards recapitulates the plot of the first half, and the last card sets the new scene, �Several years have passed.� (Six, in fact.)
In that time, Fr�d�rick has made a great success as an actor, so great that he can entertain two demimondaines at once, fight off his creditors, give money to Lacenaire, quarrel with the authors who have hired him, spoof their play as he acts it (thereby gaining even more kudos), and win a duel with them. After his own triumphs, he is willing to revisit the Funambules and pay Baptiste his sincere respects (as sincere as Fr�d�rick gets, anyway). He seems genuinely to admire Baptiste�s success, more modest but more pure artistically.
Baptiste has taken Paris in his own way, as the most excellent of mimes, packing audiences into a sold-out Funambules. He delights the �paradise,� the top gallery, full of the poorest of the poor. He has married Nathalie (whom he sort of loves), and he is father of a young son (an insufferable boy actor). Fr�d�rick, of course, lives entirely for the reckless glamour of the theater, and he has only the most grudging respect for such a bourgeois existence as Baptiste�s. And Garance as Count Edouard�s kept woman, has become a grande dame, with her carriage and her mansion. Yet a visit from Lacenaire reminds her (and Edouard) of her past.
While visiting the Funambules, Fr�d�rick discovers a mysterious lady who comes every night to see Baptiste act. It is, of course, Garance. He tells Baptiste, but before Baptiste can reach her, the old-clothes man J�richo tips off Nathalie that Garance has come back. Nathalie drives Garance away by sending their young son (an anti-Cupid) to Garance with a sentimental plea not to destroy her family.
When Baptiste again finds Garance gone, he breaks off his performances, falls into despair, and hides out with his former landlady, the motherly Mme. Hermine. She, however, tells Nathalie, who is keeping a caring eye on him, the wife-at-home saddened by his love for the impossibly glamorous Other Woman.
While lovelorn Baptiste languishes at Mme. Hermine�s, Lacenaire looks up Garance and quarrels with her patron, Edouard. Meanwhile, Fr�d�rick is about to star in the play he has wanted all his life to do, Othello. On the opening night of this play about jealousy, all the rivals for Garance come together at the aptly named Grand Th��tre. It gets to be quite a show.
Prompted by Mme. Hermine to �get out of the house,� Baptiste has come to the theater to see his old friend act. There, he happens on Garance again, and they acknowledge their love, embracing behind a curtain in the Green Room. Believing Garance�s great love to be Fr�d�rick, Edouard baits and insults �Othello,� forcing Fr�d�rick into a duel. But it is Lacenaire who has the last word. He throws back the curtain and reveals the lovers, humiliating Edouard. The Count then makes the mistake of having his two friends throw Lacenaire out of the theater. Meanwhile, Baptiste and Garance flee to the room at Mme. Hermine�s where he failed to make love to her so long ago. Now they remedy that deficiency.
The next day, the vengeful Lacenaire forestalls the duel-hungry Count by his own version of a duel: he murders the nobleman in his Turkish bath. Nathalie comes to the lovers� room and again drives Garance away, bitterly pointing out Baptiste�s obligations to her and to their child. The last scene shows the onetime Pierrot once again abandoned by his Columbine. She drives off, and Baptiste tries to follow her, but he is obstructed by a crowd of masked and costumed carnivallers. Many are dressed as Pierrot, while he is now in mufti (the reverse of the opening scene). Vainly he seeks his lost love. J�richo sneers and snarls at him as he futilely cries, �Garance! Garance!� Surrounded by carnival racket, she silently drives off in her aristocratic carriage, lost to him forever. �Garance! Garance!� A Pierrot among Pierrots, vainly calling after the moon.