Tuesday, May 28, 2013
DVR Diary: LE JOUR SE LEVE (1939)
The team behind Port of Shadows -- writer Jacques Prevert, director Marcel Carne and star Jean Gabin -- came back with another exercise in "poetic realism," the tragic fatalism in an urban lowlife milieu that had parallels in the second Warner Bros. gangster cycle and echoes in postwar American film noir. Le Jour Se Leve (usually translated as "Daybreak") will feel more like a noir to some observers because most of it is told in flashbacks. Gabin is Francois, remembering the events that led to his shooting Valentin the music-hall dog trainer (Jules Berry) at the start of the picture and the flics besieging his apartment overnight. By law they can't storm it until the next morning (hence the title), so Francois has time to dwell on his misfortune. He was Valentin's rival for the affections of Clara (Arletty), Valentin's disaffected assistant for the dog act, and Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), whom Valentin tries to keep to himself by telling Francois that she's his daughter. What makes it realism, I suppose, is the sordid subject matter and the director's strong sense of place. What makes it poetic is the atmospheric visualization of the story by Carne and four cinematographers. Francois's building and neighborhood look real when they need to, but also look like artifacts of art direction. Enhancing the poetic side of it further is an outstanding score by Maurice Jaubert. Gabin anchors it all with a characteristic charismatic performance. Francois is a big dope and a working-class loser -- he works as a sandblaster in a foundry -- who differs from his theoretical film-noir analogues by not merely accepting a grim fate but also succumbing to despair. That underscores and compounds the tragedy; it takes so little to ruin his life or, worse, to convince him that his life is irreversibly ruined. Yet everyone wants him to live, or so it seems. This isn't a posse of snipers picking Roy Earle off the mountain. Below him, Francois's friends and neighbors urge him to surrender. The cops want to take him alive by hitting his flat with tear gas. All too late as far as Francois is concerned, rendering the title grimly (if not poetically) ironic. The filmmakers may overdo it just a little by introducing a teddy bear as an symbol for the hero, but they don't hide their intention to make you feel sad. After France fell a year later, some denounced this crew for demoralizing the public, though that didn't stop Carne from working through the Occupation and making what many consider his very best film, Children of Paradise. This one will do for anyone sympathetic with the filmmakers' tragic sense of life, or at least anyone sensitive to exceptional cinematic storytelling.