It’s almost mind-boggling when one thinks of the sheer amount of cinematic masterpieces released in 1939; from the technicolor epics like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, to the triptych of John Ford films of Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Young Mr. Lincoln, to Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Rules of the Game, to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and Mizoguchi’s Story of the Late Chrysanthemums. It’s one of the few years whose masterpieces extend far below the obvious ones on the surface. Released just a few years before his sweeping epic, Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève is one such lesser known, but not lesser, masterpiece from the miracle of year of 1939. It was filmed at the height of the poetic realism movement of French cinema and remains one of the most indicative films of that movement.
The film stars Jean Gabin as François, a hard-working factory man who finds himself in trouble with the law after shooting and killing a man named Valentin (Jules Berry). As François barricades himself inside his hotel room we flash back to before the trouble when he meets a woman named Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), with the increased irony that they meet on their “Name Day”. Gabin’s François falls in love with her, but she refuses to sleep with or marry him, which leads him to become suspicious of her. Eventually, he follows her to a meeting with a dog trainer and showman named Valentin. There, he also meets Clara (Arletty), Valentin’s experienced and newly single assistant who doesn’t have anything nice to say about her ex-lover and boss. Gabin’s François and Clara become lovers, but this angers Valentin who especially warns him to stay away from Laurent’s Françoise whom he, at first, claims is his daughter.
Le Jour se Lève was written by the great French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, who also collaborated with Carné on films like Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise. Prévert’s style was well suited to poetic realism with its delicate focus on characters, its subdued sense of socio-historical context and dialogue that carefully treads the line between poetic stylization and naturalism. He was never better than here where the writing effortlessly alternates between the soft romanticism of Gabin and Laurent, to the escalating tension of Gabin alone in his room, to the psychosexual game of cat and mouse played by Gabin’s François and Valentin. In a film full of subtly shifting tones and moods, Prévert never trips up and never feels tempted to overwrite. When the film finally does explode emotionally, Prévert finally gets to show his chops.
Prévert’s pristine sense of controlled, nuanced characters, tone and drama perfectly suits Carné’s direction, which in itself is a thing of pure elegance. Carné never had the technical flash or pictorial quality of a Renoir or the rigorous formalism of a Bresson, but what he had was an immaculate control over his visual lexicon which made him a master of France’s classic era. Perhaps the finest example of this is his use of elongated fades which poetically transition from Gabin locked in his hotel room to the story of the past. These fades seem to imprint one time and place onto another, suggesting the intertwined nature of time and events. Carné is also a master at juxtaposing intimate spaces like Gabin’s or Laurent’s rooms, with large spaces like the streets outside, which visually suggests the characters’ psychological imprisonment.
In Jean Gabin Carné has one of the most reliable actors of his generation. Though I always considered Gabin to be an actor who primarily got along on his natural good looks and charm, Le Jour se Lève has thoroughly convinced me of his acting chops. Here, Gabin at times achieves an almost Brando-like focus and intensity. His psychological transformation that leads him to finally kill Valentin, and his subsequent deterioration inside the room is amongst the most riveting performances I’ve ever seen. But much like Prévert’s writing and Carné’s direction, Gabin’s performance is the farthest thing away from one-dimensional, as his scenes with Laurent are amongst the most romantic ever filmed. Especially lovely is the first scene inside Françoise’s room in which she says that he’s just like her teddy bear, Balop, who has one sad eye and one happy eye.
All three parties—Gabin’s acting, Carné’s direction, Prévert’s writing—culminate in several of the most powerful scenes in French cinema history. One finds Gabin at the window, looking out over the crowd who has gathered at his apartment, exclaiming, “I’m a murderer, yes! But killers can be met in any street… everywhere! Everyone kills. Everyone! Only they kill… by degrees, so it’s not noticed. Like the sand that gets into you!” Elsewhere the despair can be found in more subdued settings, such as Gabin’s confession that: “We two will be happy. I’ve never been happy before. When I was alone, I didn’t care.” That idea of loneliness is pervasive in a film that features characters who just can’t seem to connect meaningfully. Gabin’s continual question of “Do you love me?” to Laurent seems perpetually echoed with a hollowness, so that when she finally says “yes” we simply don’t feel it.
Like many films from the poetic realism era, including Carné’s own Port of Shadows and Renoir’s La Bête humaine, Le Jour se Lève is ostensibly set in mode of the social tragedy. All three even star Jean Gabin, who seems to be the society’s eternal victim. He certainly fits the part, looking like the good “everyman” who finds himself at the mercy of those around him. Le Jour se Lève is different in respect that the enemy seems to be more internal than external. While Gabin’s François is portrayed as having suffered from his job in the factory, in which the sand has gotten into his lungs, none of this seems to suggest the violent path that he eventually takes. While Port of Shadows seemed to stylistically set the stage for what would become the noir film, Le Jour se Lève, with its pessimism and tragic nihilism, seems to tonally prefigure the noir.
Ultimately, Le Jour se Lève seems more to represent the tragedy of solitude rather than the tragedy of society. But it’s a tragedy that’s expertly crafted by everyone involved, especially the unbeatable trio of Gabin, Carné and Prévert. It lacks the epic sweep of Children of Paradise, or the social bite and cinematic virtuosity of Rules of the Game, but in a way it’s a much more understated film than either, full of hushed transgressions, ethereal delicacy and a fragile sensitivity. It has an elusive kind of poetry and an even more elusive realism, like a film that indeed exists in the twilight of daybreak.