IT'S CLEAR from the outset that Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise" was made some time ago, during World War II to be precise. It's also clear that its 188 minutes don't exactly jet by.

But, adjusting for its 45-year-old expositional velocity, and realizing this French movie was made as two (the Nazis restricted features to 90 minutes), "Paradise" gives you something special to hunker down with, enjoy and appreciate. With a little armchair stamina (it's fall -- viewer participation is once again allowed), you might just find yourself transported.

It's fascinating to imagine this collaboration between painter-poet Jacques Prevert and director Carne being made slap in the middle of Nazi occupation, amid a world of collaborators and Resistance fighters, bloodshed and rationing. "Paradise," set in 19th-century Paris, with its world of starving street actors, pickpockets, underworld characters, bullying police, unrequited lovers and ribald theater entertainment, was not exactly a far cry from its time. Many of the "Paradise" actors were members of the Resistance and, in fact, a certain Monsieur Robert Le Vigan (later replaced in the movie by Pierre Renoir) was reportedly a Nazi collaborator and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

"Paradise" is essentially about the love between mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and attractive girl-about-town Garance (Arletty). They meet in the area known as the Boulevard of Crime, where poor folks (known as Children of Paradise) gather in the upper galleries of places such as the Theatre des Funambules to watch down-and-dirty melodrama.

Garance is falsely accused of picking someone's pocket watch. But Baptiste, a street performer, has seen the event and, in one of the movie's most memorable scenes, mimes a persuasive, eyewitness charade for the police. Released by the cops, a grateful Garance throws Baptiste a rose and, for Baptiste, a romantic obsession is born.

Actually, several obsessions are born. Baptiste's friend Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), an actor with serious ambitions, also develops an attraction for Garance, as does a rather pompous count (Louis Salou). Meanwhile, a stage manager's daughter (Maria Casares) falls for Baptiste. These and other developments make for three hours of treachery, jealousy, confessional scenes, duels, love triangles and all those things we expect from French movies.

Certainly, in today's world of "Days of Thunder" -- in which the original script reads something like, "Nyeooooow! Voooom!" -- there's something old-fashioned and stagey about this movie. To TV-raised minds, "Paradise" spends more time than it needs to get where it's going. But in its own terms, the movie has flashes of oldtime magic. It's a precious piece of time past -- and time kept. CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Unrated) --

Key. In French with subtitles.