Daybreak (Le jour se leve): Marcel Carne’s French Masterpiece of 1939

Directed by Marcel Carné and written by Jacques Prévert, Le Jour se leve (Daybreak) is based on a story by Jacques Viot.

A great sampler of French poetic realism, Le Jour se lève was released in France in June 1939, the same year that Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game was shown.

But it was banned in 1940 by the Vichy government, claiming that it was demoralizing and contributed to the nation’s defeat. After WWII, the film was shown again to wide acclaim.

In 1947, it was suppressed when RKO wanted to remake the film in Hollywood under the title of The Long Night. The studio acquired the distribution rights and sought to buy and destroy every copy of the film.  Fortunately, the movie reappeared in the early 1950s, and in 1952 was included in the first Sight and Sound poll of top ten greatest films.

Next to Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise), in 1945, it’s considered one of the finest collaborative achievements of Carné and Prévert.

The characterization, look, tone, and visual style of this film are far more important than its plot per se.  After shooting and killing Valentin (Jules Berry), foundry worker François (Jean Gabin) locks himself in his room in a guest house. He is besieged by the police but they fail to break into the room where François barricades himself in.

In a series of flashbacks punctuated by glimpses of the present, it is revealed that François had become involved with both the naive young floral shop worker Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), and the more experienced Clara (Arletty), who had been the assistant in Valentin’s performing dog act.

The older, manipulative Valentin had himself been involved with both women, and he becomes jealous of François. Valentin confronts François in his room, and latter shoots him with his own gun.

François continues to chain-smoke nervously in his room. Françoise, having learned of his plight, has become delirious and is being tended to by Clara at a nearby hotel. The two policemen climb over the roof, preparing to throw tear gas grenades through the window of François’s room. But François, consumed with despair, shoots himself. The film ends with tear gas clouds filling the room, as the alarm clock starts to ring, announcing the morning.

Cast

Jean Gabin as François

Jacqueline Laurent as Françoise

Jules Berry as M. Valentin

Arletty as Clara

Arthur Devère as Mr. Gerbois

Bernard Blier as Gaston

Marcel Pérès as Paulo

Germaine Lix as La chanteuse

Georges Douking as blind man