Le Jour Se Leve
The doomed romanticism of French "poetic realism" in the late Thirties reaches its high point with Marcel Carne's Le Jour se leve (1939). Perhaps reflecting the sense of defeat that many French intellectuals felt after the collapse of the leftist Popular Front movement, the films of "poetic realism" maintained a focus on working-class life, but with more fatalistic plots. They also created a moody atmosphere through music, lighting, and vividly detailed but vaguely dreamlike sets. It has often been said that the tone of films such as Le Jour se leve, Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine (1938) and Carne's Port of Shadows/Quai des Brumes (1938) foreshadowed France's humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940. Le Jour se leve, appearing on the eve of World War II was banned in December of 1939 and again during the Occupation, its air of defeat cutting too close to the bone for French authorities.
Director Marcel Carne (1909-1996) had what was arguably the greatest streak of artistic success in French cinema apart from that of Jean Renoir during roughly the same era: Drole de drame (1937, his second feature), Le Quai des brumes, Hotel du Nord (1938), Le Jour se leve, Les Visiteurs du soir (1942) and Les Enfants du paradis (1945). Significantly, all of them featured scripts written or co-written by screenwriter Jacques Prevert (1900-1977) except for Hotel du Nord, which was written by Jean Aurenche. While all of these films benefit from Prevert's incisive dialogue, Le Jour se leve stands out for its purity of conception and its structural unity; its novel flashback structure has inspired any number of films since. With the publication of his collection Paroles in 1946, Prevert also became his country's most popular poet. His poem "Les Feuilles mortes," set to music by French composer Joseph Kosma, even became a hit song in the U.S. under the title "Autumn Leaves."
Another of Carne's major collaborators during this period was the Hungarian-born production designer Alexandre Trauner (1906-1993). Both Carne and Trauner had worked together on Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders/La Kermesse heroique (1935), whose main set designer was the great Lazare Meerson. The experience of working on this meticulously designed historical film, set in the Netherlands during the 17th century, no doubt helped cultivate Carne and Trauner's own remarkable sense of atmosphere and detail, which is amply reflected in Le Jour se leve. For greater authenticity, the notoriously exacting director insisted that the set for Francois' apartment be constructed as a single unit without movable walls. This, of course, complicated the crew's task of moving equipment around for each camera setup. Moreover, Carne demanded that the police gunfire upon Francois' apartment be accomplished with real bullets. Carne biographer Edward Baron Turk quotes from Carne's memoirs: "The sound of the fusillade was so strong that one of my assistants lost his hearing for a week." Carne, however, was pleased with the result: "Not only had the wallpaper been torn around each point of contact, but the very path of the bullets left its mark in the plaster. The effect was so strikingly lifelike that I jumped for joy. This was one of those happy occurrences that on rare occasions take place during production."
Lead actor Jean Gabin (1904-1976) was by far the most popular French actor of the era and its greatest cultural icon. His characters during this time tended to be of the working class or figures on the margins of society, prone to outbursts of violence. While the characters did not adhere to conventional mores, they still had an underlying sense of decency and often a stoic sense of humor. A major element of the Gabin mystique was how his characters typically met tragic fates. In his biography of Marcel Carne, Edward Baron Turk recounts the rumor from 1936 on that Gabin insisted on a clause in his contracts "guaranteeing that his films would include at least one episode of uncontrollable anger." In fact, promotional artwork for this film in France has often foregrounded the image of Gabin pointing a gun, shouting, his face distorted by rage. The prolific character actor Jules Berry (1883-1951), who so memorably embodies Valentin's tawdry, smooth-talking charms, is also much admired for his performance as the corrupt publisher in Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) and as a vaguely Hitler-like Devil in Carne's Les Visiteurs du soir.
While Le Jour se leve is almost universally regarded as a classic today, its critical reception was decidedly mixed during its American release. The reviewer for Variety complained that "an otherwise excellent theme is marred by some basic errors of psychology which a more careful study of the human character would have avoided." However, he did single out Arletty and Jules Berry's performances for praise, as well as the cinematography and score. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised Jean Gabin's "superb" performance and Marcel Carne's handling of the suspense aspect for the first three-quarters of the film. "Then," he writes, "the motivation falters, an anticlimax sets in. The pity of it all seems slightly forced, the melodramatics too obvious." However, the folks in Hollywood recognized the story's power, and it was remade in 1947 as The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda and directed by Anatole Litvak; this suggests something of the commonalities Le Jour se leve's bleak vision shares with the postwar cycle of film noir in America.
Director: Marcel Carne
Screenplay: Jacques Viot (story) and Jacques Prevert (dialogue)
Production design: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Editor: Rene Le Henaff
Costumes: Boris Bilinsky
Cast: Jean Gabin (Francois), Jacqueline Laurent (Francoise), Arletty (Clara), Jules Berry (M. Valentin), Rene Genin (Concierge), Mady Berry (Concierge's wife), Marcel Peres (Paulo), Jacques Baumer (Inspector), Rene Bergeron (Cafe proprietor), Georges Douking (Blind Man).
by James Steffen