Like Hollywood, 1939 was a pivotal year in French cinema, with Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu looming large over popular consciousness. But as Ben McCann laments, this comes at the cost of this Marcel Carné classic.
1939 is often held up as Hollywood’s annus mirabilis. A quick glance at some of its marquee releases – The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Grapes of Wrath – sums up what André Bazin termed the ‘genius of the system’. The entire corpus of Classical Hollywood cinema might be cloned from these films, but time and again it is Gone with the Wind that critics, historians, and viewers hold up the exemplary film product from 1939, and it’s still that film that achieves the most cultural purchase today. Similarly, in France, a whole wonderful range of films were released in 1939 that have, for one reason or another, always been obliged to make way for La Règle du jeu. It’s this film that casts a shadow over history books, Top Ten lists, and university film courses to this day, whereas the likes of Circonstances atténuantes, Ils étaient neuf célibataires, Le Dernier tournant, and Menaces are airbrushed out of official cultural discourse, despite encapsulating very exact expressions of 1930s French film culture, ideology, and practice. Add to that list Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève, released three weeks before La Règle du jeu. Those expressions – political, social, emotional, aesthetic – coalesce to a remarkable degree. A film of dead-ends and despair, we remain today beguiled by its melancholic romanticism and eloquent fatalism.
For many, Le Jour se lève (the story of François – told in flashback – a man who has committed a murder, and who awaits his fate as the police close in) is not considered Marcel Carné’s best film. That honour usually goes to Les Enfants du paradis (1945), the film that François Truffaut once admitted he would trade in his entire back catalogue to have made. Carné forever worked at the interface of popular and auteur aesthetics, shuttling between different registers, tones, and textures. He was immensely collaborative, capable of marshalling the resources of the studio, adept at pictorial composition, and was a steady overseer of populist and accessible films that struck a resonant chord with audiences. For me, it is its bittersweet, pared-down narrative, its economy of gesture, and its expressive decor that makes Le Jour se lève Carné’s masterpiece. Everywhere you look, the Carné touch is there: professional, meticulous, harmonious. These qualities, and the blissful, woozy verbal and visual memories they conjure up, are Carné’s tools of the trade, and with them, he sealed an extraordinary new cinematic style with Le Jour se lève: not lyrical melodrama, not film gris, but a kind of Romantic Expressionism.
Pick up any history of French cinema and Le Jour se lève’s iconic images stare back at you: François gazing forlornly out of a window, Valentin cajoling his dogs, Arletty playfully covering her body as she steps out of a shower. By 1939, Carné had become the leading standard bearer of the French ‘Poetic Realist’ aesthetic. A film style that combined romantic-fatalist narratives with claustrophobic environments and an accentuated mise-en-scène, Poetic Realism was epitomised by directors like Carné, Pierre Chenal and Julien Duvivier. Taken as a whole, these works were strong pre-cursors to American film noir, and it was Carné’s own contributions that were the most impressive. Le Jour se lève is clearly influenced by the austere visual style of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, while its recurring urban iconography and characters types recalled Carné’s early mentors René Clair and Jacques Feyder.
Le Jour se lève is a clairvoyant film that neatly synthesises the filaments and fears of its historical moment. More than any other released in Europe in the late 1930s, it peered into a near future pregnant with foreboding and pessimism. Carné spent his whole life resisting barometrical readings of his films, but it is hard to avoid reading Le Jour se lève as a posteriori shorthand for the state of the French nation in 1939, a place full of sombre corners and encroaching extinction. It is very much a ‘mood film’, and a confirmation of national self-doubt and existential despair. Despite the ironic implications of its title – ‘Daybreak’ –, the film is engorged with a melancholy that seems to correspond to a whole raft of socio-political contexts: the collapse of the Popular Front, the aftermath of the Munich Agreement, and the perceived betrayal of the working-class. Less than twelve months after the film was released, France had capitulated to the German army, and a whole new ‘daybreak’ would emerge across France until the summer of 1944.
Structurally too, Le Jour se lève is daring and highly influential. It is one of the first films to employ a complex narrative syntax, full of the flashbacks, ellipses and object symbolism that predated the American film noir template of doomed, decent men jammed into a claustrophobic architecture by nearly ten years. It was a film that influenced Orson Welles, John Huston and Howard Hawks, but also young French directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin and Jacques Becker, who borrowed Carné’s interleaving of the visual and the psychological to create similar narratives of despair and gloom. Think of the final shot of Belmondo’s empty hat in Melville’s Le Doulos (1962) – a symbol, like the ringing clock at the end of the Le Jour se lève, for the death of a good man. Or Serge Reggiani in Becker’s Casque d’or (1952), guillotined in the street for having killed a man who had corrupted the woman he loves.
As a performance piece, the film would mark the highpoint of the careers of its lead actors. Jules Berry was never more oleaginous as Valentin, the original showman raté; Jacqueline Laurent’s china-doll fragility was rarely captured so expertly again, and Arletty, so luminous for Carné in Les Enfants du paradis, and so guttural in Hôtel du Nord, nearly steals the show. Jacques Prévert never wrote more lyrical dialogue, Alexandre Trauner never designed sets more expressive. And Carné, ruthlessly punned by Bazin as ‘disincarnated’ after the war, was rarely again able to deploy the talents of his technical team in such a controlled and sustained way. French Poetic Realism, a style and a sensibility that Carné did much to develop and export, despite his protestations, reached its apotheosis in 1939, and with Le Jour se lève, the legacy of the Golden Age of French Cinema was clinched. And of course, Le Jour se lève remains above all a film for, with, and about Jean Gabin. Perhaps French cinema’s greatest actor, he dominates the film, appearing in nigh on every scene, alternately explosive and tender; nonchalant and nostalgic. Whether he’s drinking milk from a bottle or reading shipping reports, there is a wholesale identification with François. Nowhere is this pact played out more dolefully than in Le Jour se lève, where Bolop the teddy bear’s ‘one sad eye and one cheerful eye’ seems to stand not just for François but a whole swathe of French society marooned between opposing forcefields of the Popular Front and France’s post-Munich malaise. ■