“A killer! Now there’s something to gossip about! Sure, I’m a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen! They’re everywhere! Everyone kills! They just do it quietly, so you don’t see. It’s like sand. It gets deep inside you.”
So exclaims Jean Gabin’s famous proletarian hero from his apartment balcony to the curious masses below in Marcel Carné’s 1939 masterpiece, Le jour se lève.
Many critics, when asked which movie acts as the quintessential example of film noir, would say The Maltese Falcon. When asked which film most exemplifies the precepts of the screwball comedy, many experts would likely tag It Happened One Night. When it comes to the American Western, they likely cite Stagecoach. Well, in my opinion, if you were to ask which film most embodies the general characteristics, images, and ideas of French Poetic Realism, the answer would be Le jour se lève.
Also known, in some releases, as Daybreak, Le jour se lève is one of the famous French director’s three crowning achievements, along with Children of Paradise and Port of Shadows. Lacking the epic romance of the former, and more honed than the latter, Le jour se lève is the perfect portrait of intimacy and individualism wherein the poetic realism of France best operates. In it, we find the most typical (and at times, the best) manifestations of the genre, both from the perspective of story and from the perspective of visual dynamic. Like so many of the greatest films of all time, such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and others, Carné’s humanist masterpiece is a multi-faceted work. On one hand, the film operates as a psychoanalytic mechanism; on the other it tells a simple, broken love story. One viewing of it lends itself to the sort of detached quasi-mystery that lies at the core of film noir character arcs. Another viewing appears to be a stunning strike at the heart of pre-war France, a not-so-thinly veiled allegory of the subjugation of the common man in a desensitized and bourgeois world. Similarly, one can see something less specific to the country and time of its creation, but rather a more generalized story of an individual fighting for self-actualization in a society divided by class, morality, and power in all its forms. The film’s main character, François, is far removed from us, and we observe his life scientifically. Yet, he is also a representative of us: we’ve all loved and lost, we’ve all been mired down in jealousy, we’ve all been helpless to overcome life’s realities as they set in all around us, and we’ve all made irreversible mistakes. We’ve all, in ways more metaphorical than literal, been holed up in a cell of our own making as we wonder what to do next.
On all these levels, separately, Le jour se lève is a bona fide work of art. Cumulatively, you have a unique and unforgettable experience.
I read an interesting observation on the Internet a couple weeks ago; I believe it was on a message board. Someone referenced how Le jour se lève had been listed in the Top Ten greatest films of all time by Sight and Sound magazine when its first poll was released in 1952. In this poll, it beat out such masterpieces as Citizen Kane, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. However, in more recent years, Le jour se lève was not even listed in the New York Times Guide to the 1000 Greatest Movies Ever Made. The commentor came to an interesting conclusion: Le jour se lève is simultaneously among the most underrated and overrated movies of all time, being at one time one of the top ten movies ever, and at another, not even worthy of the top one thousand.
(Quick side note: While I don’t entirely agree with the conclusion, I think the observation that leads to it is interesting. I disagree with the conclusion because I disagree that the Times’ “Guide” is all that accurate a representation of history’s greatest films. Don’t get me wrong, one would be highly benefited by watching the movies referenced therein, but to limit one’s exposure to movies listed only in that list would not only be a quibbling endeavor, it may actually be one of the most foolish things a person could do in this path from casualness to competency. This is because most of that list was pulled from the “Top Ten” lists that were compiled by Times critics at the end of each year since 1927. While the editors did liberally add some other films, they didn’t make it a common practice. As a result, you haven’t a single great silent film [even post-sound silents like City Lights or Modern Times]. Neither will you find such necessary inclusions as A Man Escaped, Ordet, and many, many others. As a matter of fact, I’m quite sure that not a single film from Marcel Carné even graces the list.)
While the commentor’s conclusion may not have been accurate, the thought that went behind it was certainly interesting. The interest that is piqued here involves this ambiguity, this ethereal, mercurial critical position that Le jour se lève possesses. It is a movie that is not simple to quantify or qualify. Having recently seen it for the second time, I am haunted by how much I like it, and yet, I find it difficult to say exactly where it belongs in the pantheon of classic cinema. It is a brilliant picture, but just oblique enough to transcend the pigeonholing of rankings and contexts.
Furthermore, the movie is strikingly multipolar, as I stated earlier. Its foray into romance, politics, psychoanalysis, character, and melodrama fit in very nicely with the inherent paradox of “poiesis” and “realism” that somehow became France’s signature genre…at least, until the New Wave.
The film’s synopsis is best summed up by the opening titles: A man has killed another. Now, barricaded in his room, he recalls the circumstances that led him to murder.
What ensues is one of the finest time-dissociative screenplays ever conceived, playing out in three acts, each consisting of a scene from the killer’s apartment followed by a flashback. The flashbacks are introduced by an artistic use of superimposition to produce drawn-out fades. As a matter of fact, in comparison with other famous flashback-driven pictures, like Citizen Kane and Rashomon, the aesthetic construction of the flashbacks are probably the best I’ve ever seen.
Supporting cast members and extras aside, the movie is really about four characters. First and foremost, there is the film’s primary protagonist, François, played by the illustrious Jean Gabin (France’s version of Humphrey Bogart, easily the greatest star in the history of French cinema). Then, there is François’s love interest, the youthful and innocent Chimene-type character named Françoise, played by nineteen-year-old Jacqueline Laurent. Their romance is at once idyllic: they share a name, a saint’s day, a common past (they both are orphans), and a dream to ride bicycles in the hills and among the flowers. Yet, a rift is torn between them by a third character, Valentin, played by Jules Berry (who starred as a very similar character in an earlier classic, Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange). Valentin is shown as an evil character, a sort of philandering puppet-master who plays with the female imagination to get his way—as a matter of fact, he isn’t much unlike Kilgrave, the Purple Man in Jessica Jones. His influence on Françoise pre-dates her affair with François, and works to drive what would otherwise be a perfect relationship apart. François is not the only person left behind by this romantic cunning; he finds solace in the embrace of Valentin’s own spurned ex-lover, Clara, who is played by the incomparable Arletty.
The schema of these characters, as pointed out by Maureen Turim in her article “Poetic Realism as Psychoanalytical and Ideological Operation” closely mirrors the standard formula of the Romantic melodrama. This incorporation of melodramatic features (particularly French melodramatic features) was abundant in many of the French films of the decade and beyond, and this is particularly evident in the collaborative work of Carné and the famous screenwriter, Jacques Prévert. Prévert was undeniably one of the most accomplished of all French screenwriters by the time 1939 came around; this greatness would only increase as his career lengthened. Among the titles to his name were those aforementioned in this article: Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows, and The Crime of Monsieur Lange.
Prévert was more than a screenwriter, he was predominantly a poet. Hence, this infusion of an otherwise realist film with a persistent poetic stubbornness, from its appeal to objects to its fascination with the melodramatic scheme consisting of two men—the hero and the villain—and two women: the virtuous woman and the fallen woman. One may find that this formula is of predominant impact in the mythology of the American Western (as explained in my review of Stagecoach, hyperlinked above), a drama equally poetic though far less real then the type we are dealing with here. However, the American Western did not tend to pit these parties against one another as does the French melodrama. The American Western was more about retribution and reconciliation: the villain meets his fiery end while the fallen woman finds her virtue through sacrifice. Here, however, the interplay is far more focused on the four-way cycle of love, and the doomed spiral that forms its base.
According to Turim, the melodramatic structure is given a delicate twist in Prévert’s hands. Where one normally would see the charmed relationship between the virtuous woman and the virtuous man ruptured by the incursion of the fallen woman and the villain (who is something more than just a “fallen man”), one instead sees the lines more vaguely drawn. The lines are not so vague as to make them amorphous; we can clearly tell who’s who in the melodrama at hand. But, vague they are, because the characters are less perfectly-circumscribed into their characterizations then we, and certainly a pre-war French audience, would initially think.
Consider, at first the lovely Françoise, whom we first meet behind a halo of flowers. Her clothing at all times is soft and bright, her hair bleached in the hard lighting of Philipe Agostini’s photography. She is presented in idyllic terms, particularly at that first meeting. Elsewhere, we see her reflection in a mirror, or we say her lay on a bed of reeds in a greenhouse, surrounded by flora.
Clara, on the other hand is shown in dark clothing, imbued with an edginess bordering on promiscuity. She is the companion to the devilish Valentin, and her long, elegant body, in the vein of a young Gloria Swanson, visually invokes the sceptre-like omniscience of a femme fatale. That temptress-like swagger is just the sort of “demon” that matches the diabolic stature of the mischievous Valentin.
And, yet, when these women first cross paths, at least, in the film, they are in the same place. Françoise is not quite so brightly construed, and the intersection of these two melodramatic archetypes is not so much a conflict as a surrender. Françoise, in that scene, has much more in common with Clara than in differentiation; this is especially the case when you see Clara approach François at the bar, while Françoise, in turn, heads into the back room of the cafe-concert hall to meet Valentin.
We see that the visual conception of Françoise may not be a fair representation of who she actually is, and even more so, the visual conception of Clara. In the end, what this accomplishes is not so much a diminution of Françoise, but an exaltation of Clara. The next time these two share the screen is in a powerful closing scene, as both of these women face the inevitable fate of their mutual affection, François.
What is the point of this? Why do we need to know about French melodrama, and why do we need to know about this slight twist in the melodramatic fabric that Prévert and Carné took in Le jour se lève? It’s more than just an interesting tidbit: it sets the entire structural framework of the picture, from its visuals to its script to the performances of its actors (which, by the way, were all fantastic).
See, where the characters are only loosely impacted by the French melodramatic schematic, we are forced to understand why. As opposed to melodrama, where the fates of the characters, like the destiny-propelled characters of Greek tragedy, are predetermined by a natural course of the narrative structure, the individuals in Le jour se lève are not dictated by the result of the schema. Rather, they operate independently within it. There individualism is more respected than their utility. Despite this, they are still, it seems part of this inevitability. Even though they are far more dynamic and personal than they would be in the traditional melodramatic structure, they are still, decidedly, victims of the narrative of life. Here, perhaps more than in any other way in this film, we are exposed to the beautiful marriage of poetry (melodrama) with realism (humanism). Though they operate in this dynamic, they are not bound to it. And this is the heart of French Poetic Realism.
Well, if the female characters are more vague in the context of melodramatic interpretation, what about the male characters? They are equally vague, though that vagueness is obtained through different means. Where the females were both a composite of the fallen and virtuous woman so that, cumulatively, they blurred the traditional role-lines, the males were completely opposite from one another. Valentin is, undeniably, the quintessential example of the melodramatic villain: a manipulative, promiscuous, immoral, and scathing character. In order, therefore, for the males, like the females, to accomplish this cumulative blurring of the melodramatic schematic, then the movie’s main character, François, would have to be very complex. More than any other character in the film, François is the most difficult to pin down, and that is beautifully intentional.
François is, without doubt, the hero of the film. He provides the film its moral framework. He is strong and masculine. He is also very sensitive. He is a working class hero that would make Woody Guthrie or John Lennon proud. Yet, he is surprisingly conflicted toward an inevitable defeat. Turim writes significantly about his “death drive”, and on top of that personal death drive, we also see his own descent into murder. In the melodramatic context that I’ve spent so much time on in the recent paragraphs, we come quickly to a simple conclusion: in order to destroy the evil that confronts him, François must also destroy himself. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that François’s “destruction” of Valentin is inevitable; even though Françoise has pledged to leave Valentin and the visions of bike rides through the mimosas is ripe for fruition, François still cannot fully defeat Valentin without pulling a trigger.
It’s this inevitability of self-destruction that lends to the film its profound pessimism. The movie, as difficult as it is to say (because I want people to want to watch it), is driven by a dreariness, both aesthetically and in terms of the narrative. This melancholy permeates every frame, with the only exorcising incidents being those moments with François and Françoise as they talk about their futures. But even those sequences are tainted, because we know that those futures will never actualize. This, for all intents and purposes, is a doomed picture.
Its mood was enough that the Vichy government banned it under censorship laws for being too defeatist: the government did not want such disillusionment and despair to affect the proletarian ranks of society, as France dealt with severe cultural change and as a deadly second World War loomed ominously. It would strike around a year later. The movie was about a working man who was incapable of escaping his mired position in the sticky status quo of French society, whose subjugation to the external forces all around led to an inevitable “death drive.” France did not need, according to the Vichy regime, such a “death drive.”
I agree with Turim that the external forces around François contributed to this acceleration toward an unpleasant end, this death drive. But also agree with another special point: François’s fate is more than self-destruction for self’s sake, it is also a stunning manifestation of protest. Death is a fantastic form of protest in literary and artistic terms; far more potent and effective than in real life, for obvious reasons (nobody actually dies when its done in a movie). François’s final stand against Valentin (and against the hosts of police that descend upon his home as he’s holed up within it) is more than just a manifestation of the working man’s inevitable self-destruction, it’s also a profound piece of art kicking back against the prodding force of worldly cultural manipulation.
This is where the film, where at once romantic, is so profoundly political. It is a story that does well, visually, to portray the world of 1930s France for what it was: like our world, it is a world of perpetual motion. Ebbing and flowing up and down, side to side, in circles and lines, people and objects lap up against one another in a continuous stream of commerce and interconnectivity. Society, we see is a well-oiled machine. We see it in those above-shots that pan the set, showing people on foot and on bicycles and in automobiles bustling busily about the day. Le jour se lève, however, does not dwell on the machine. Instead, it focuses on one singular piece of one singular cog on one singular gear in that machine. This is the personality of the picture, and the dynamic that it puts forth visually. In a world of perpetual motion, there isn’t time or need to focus on the needs of one person, yet this movie dedicates great swaths of time to him.
François, we see early on in the film, is just such a tiny, integral, and overlooked piece of the machine. I’ve already talked about how Françoise looked when we first see her: a muse-like innocent enshrined with flowers. In that scene, she stands before François, who presents a very different picture. Dressed in the metallic armor of a sandblaster’s suit, with a glass shield across his face, François looks almost robotic, the quintessential portrait of the Industrial Man. We later learn that his life of working as a sandblaster has drastically damaged his lungs, that he is in poor health, and doomed to a short-lived existence on this earth.
Does this matter to anyone? Clearly, it matters to a lot of people. It matters to Françoise. It matters to Clara. It matters to the masses of workers on the street below, who call up to François in a desperate plea for him to surrender and live another day.
“He’s not a criminal,” one of them says, “He’s just an ordinary man.”
This solidarity, though, is not enough. The externalities that force this destruction are represented in the character of Valentin. Not only is Valentin the desecrator of the women that François cares for, but Valentin is also the sort of tormenting bourgeois that suffocates François’s existence, who seems to live just to snuff out the flame within him. It bears noting that Valentin consistently taunts François for his social state, for his failure with Françoise, and for the sand that is destroying his lungs.
This brings me back to the quote that I included at the start of this essay. François exclaims to the crowd below that we’re all doomed to kill. It’s like sand. It gets in your lungs. You can’t help it. Now, he doesn’t mean this literally, certainly. But, as a symbol, the imagery is profound. It’s the symbol of self-destruction, isolation, and the inevitability of defeat that faced the common working man of pre-war France.
The great André Bazin wrote about how the set direction in Le jour se lève was the root of the film’s stylistic identity: the visual poetics that accompanied this otherwise realist fiction. Consider the three primary sets in the film. First, we have François’s apartment, the most realist set of the picture. Carné insisted that the set have non-movable walls (which made filming sequences like the famous long-take at the beginning of the film incredibly difficult). He wanted to ensure that the apartment be authentic, but he also wanted it to portray that emotion of isolation, like walls closing in, that François was experiencing.
Second, we have the stairwell of the apartment building itself. Tall and spiraling, the stairwell floats a little, allowing for craning shots that move upward and downward. This style would be resurrected and perfected in the works of Max Ophüls later on, particularly in his Le Plaisir. Like all stairs, once you are on them, your choices are limited as to in which direction you may proceed. Again, that idea of inevitability.
Third, we have the city outside. The sets were constructed almost askew; there is this real lack of uniformity and legitimacy about the set. The set, as a matter of fact, is actually quite Expressionist in its construction, not unlike the works of Fritz Lang and Robert Weise, and not unlike the works of American film noir. It’s this duality of set design that gives Le jour se lève its distinct visual flair, a blend of authenticity with Expressionism that gives light to the phrase “Poetic Realism.”
Then, there are the minutiae. There are the little objects, like tokens, that trigger each of François’s flashbacks. The teddy bear with one ear. This was Françoise’s. It reminded her of François, because, like him, it had one sad eye and one bright eye (again, a profound symbol of the good but disheartened worker). There was the brooch, a symbol of Valentin’s sexual conquest that clearly tied François’s stomach in knots every time he looked at it. There was the mirror, which, like it does in almost every movie, is such a telling symbol of introspection. There was even the armoire in his room. (The French word armoire is played with in one scene where François pushes it in front of his door to barricade entry and block a wave of bullets. The wardrobe [armoire] is being used as his armor [armure]. This is especially interesting considering the sandblasting armor that we see François wearing at the beginning of the film. It is also important to note the similarity that these words have with “love” [amour]. This lends interesting the line stated by François’s landlord: “I don’t know…it’s a wardrobe like all the others.” François’s love is just a love like all others; a doomed thought.)
Turim views the incorporation of these objects as pieces informing François’s psychology, as dissociative memory devices representative as both subjective (dealing with his own ideas and feelings) and intersubjective (dealing with the external forces around him). This pattern of subjectivity and intersubjectivity is really what this film is about. The melodramatic schema used by Prévert is clearly a literary device designed to demonstrate the impact of people on one another. The isolation of François in his apartment, however, is indicative of a very personal, subjective battle with the self. I find this polarity very intriguing.
However, I don’t want to talk about the psychoanalytical part. I’d rather get into something that I already covered in my blog. It’s important that certain ideas are repeated, because this is, after all, a blog that is set up more as a curriculum then a mere recitation. It is timely, therefore, to talk about the incorporation of these objects in an anthropological sense.
In my case study on the anthropology of foreign films which I wrote quite a while ago, I focused solely on the oeuvre of China’s greatest director, Yimou Zhang. In it, I talked a lot about the laws of sympathetic magic, an admittedly older anthropological theory to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. Sympathetic magic involves the enduing of an object with one’s essence, making the object worth more or less than it otherwise would be on both a subjective (personal) and intersubjective (relationship) level. A mouthpiece would generally sell for a couple of dollars. But, a mouthpiece worn by Steph Curry? Priceless. A mouthpiece by any other name would smell as plastic. This is the “magic” behind gift-giving, behind trinkets and affections, behind voodoo, behind rites of passage, and behind antique roadshows. It is as human as any cultural phenomenon one can identify.
Consider the bowl, the barrette, the school, the dumplings, and so much more that become central pieces of the drama in Zhang’s works, such as The Road Home and To Live. Into these mundane objects were poured the entire emotional crux of his dramatic structure. Around these objects the characters coalesced, and by the inherent power of these objects the character changed. To properly give these objects their due, requires more than just their usage in the script. It requires that they be put on visual display through the medium itself.
In Le jour se lève, cinematographer Philipe Agostini and director Marcel Carné worked wonders to create an atmosphere of lighting and angles that gave life to a noir-like world while still somehow portraying these objects, arguably the most humanist elements of the film, with proper reverence. They all, whether good, bad, or ugly, look down on François from the mantlepiece as he deliberates in those drawn-out long-takes that were so profoundly well-orchestrated. As the crowd below expresses their support for him—support he readily rejects, mistaking it for mockery—and as the police assault the walls of his home with bullets and tear gas, all while his memories assault him with even more fervor, François is not quite, not completely, alone. The essence of times and people past are with him. The sadness is that this is not quite enough.
Truly, this film is a masterpiece. To make such a humanist allegory function in a realist application, while visually adhering to the aesthetics of film noir is outstanding. And yet, Carné, with all these tasks before him, was able to bring out the best in his actors. Other than the young Ms. Laurent, the three other performers in the film were seasoned and respected stars. Arletty was a superstar and a model. Berry was not unlike a couple Americans who, like François and Françoise, had a very similar last name: Barrymore. And, of course, there was Jean Gabin, the nation’s most popular star. His star, like that of the others, would only rise higher because of this movie. Sadly, of course, that would be delayed because of censorship. But, the legacy lives on. Here, we have some of the greatest actors in French history, one of the greatest directors in French history, one of the greatest screenwriters in French history, and so many other integral participants in the moviemaking process, coalescing to create a movie that truly gave light and meaning to the term “Poetic Realism”. They may not have made the best movie of that genre, but they certainly made the one that most summed it up.