Le Jour Se Leve (1939): Marcel Carne’s Masterpiece, Highlight of French Poetic Realism

Le Jour Se Leve, directed by Marcel Carne in 1939, has been restored by Realto Pictures and will be released theatrically in November 2014.

As suggested by its ironic title, Carné’s fifth feature is the story of the tragic end of an era .  Literally, Le Jour Se Leve means Day Begins Itself, though the English title is Daybreak, which does not signal the same meaning.

Detailed Plot

François (Jean Gabin), a worker in a sandblasting factory, barricades himself in his room on the top floor of a six-story building after killing the unscrupulous music hall dog trainer Valentin (Jules Berry). François is soon besieged by the police, who fail in an attempt to shoot themselves into his room. François pushes a large wardrobe against the door, sealing himself in. He begins smoking, pacing the room, and reminiscing.

Three Flashbacks

In a series of three flashbacks, framed by sequences in the present, it’s revealed that François is romantically involved with a demure young florist, Françoise (Jacqueline

Laurent), and with worldly showgirl Clara (Arletty), Valentin’s former assistant at a nearby café-concert show. Valentin grows jealous of François, as the older man was once intimate with Françoise, as well as with Clara.

After spying on François and Clara, Valentin falsely claims to be François’s father, even though François and Françoise have told each other tha they are orphans (and share a saint’s day). Valentin does not want François to continue his courtship of Françoise. François and Françoise meet in a greenhouse, and she promises not to see Valentin again. They tenderly confess their love for each other.

Valentin eventually confronts François in his room with a gun. An extended argument ensues (during which François threatens to throw Valentin out the window), and provoked,François shoots and kills Valentin.

François becomes hysterical and harangues the crowd, including his co-workers, who have gathered in the small square below. As day breaks, a delirious François is tended to by Clara. Riot police arrive and disperse the crowd. Two policemen climb over the roof of François’s apartment and throw a tear gas canister into his room. A moment before, François, overcome with despair and grief, shoots himself through the heart.

Tragic Ending

The film ends with the sound of an alarm clock, while  tear gas clouds are filling the room around François’s body.

Allegory and Reality

The very name of the film’s protagonist, François, is allegorical: François’s plight may be read as an expression of the state of hopelessness and frustration that defined French society in 1939.

Le Jour Se Lève, more than Carne’s almost equally impressive Port of Shadows, is a chronicle ofa  national crisis, a collective turmoil. The film was conceived shortly before Hitler’s troops marched into Bohemia-Moravia and it was released less than three months prior to the Franco-British declaration of War.

The inspiration for the story came from a Montmartre art dealer, Jacques Viot, who had an apartment across the hall from Carné’s on the rue Caulaincourt. One day, Viot presented his famous neighbor with a three-page synopsis entitled “Le Jour se lève.”

Carné was stirred by its flashback premise, as he later recalled: “I fell in love with it.  Not with the plot, which was almost nonexistent, but with its manner of construction.”

Carne and Prévert were under contract to do a gangster picture, tentatively titled Rue des Vertus, and starring Jean Gabin, with Arletty and Jules Berry in supporting roles.  However, convinced that Le Jour Se Lève would be more rewarding, Carné persuaded producer Pierre Frogerais to abandon that project. In the following weeks, Viot and Prévert moved to the Aigle Noir, a hotel in Fontainebleau, and worked non-stop on the screenplay.  Although the credits attribute the scenario to Viot and the dialogue to Prévert, Prévert was responsible for both.

Le Jour Se Lève demonstrates the use of screen narration at its very best. François’s three flashbacks are first-person narratives that depict the workings of a mind bent on suicide. As Jacques Brunius noted, “Never had the cinema accomplished its destiny so thoroughly: to become a faithful mirror of mental representation, to become the instrument, par excellence, for the objectification of memory.”

The dissolves punctuating each flashback’s beginning and ending are accompanied by two brief musical themes – a mournful tune played by piccolo and oboe, and a heavy rhythmic motif thumped by bass drum and other percussion instruments.  Composed by Maurice Jaubert, the music conveys François’s inner voice during the passages from objective to subjective reality. Le Jour Se Lève was Jaubert’s last picture before his death in the war. It exemplifies a conviction that film music was meant not to paraphrase action, but to add to it: “The essence of music

Is rhythm organized temporally. In making it the slave of dramatic events or gestures which, by their nature, do not correspond to a defined rhythm but rather to physiological or psychological reactions…music is reduced to mere sound.”

Although Le Jour Se Lève is a film about thoughts, nowhere else in the Carné oeuvre is the poetic potential of the material world integral to the film.  In Le Jour Se Lève, correspondences between psyche and matter remain subtle. But because virtually every object in François’s room acquires additional meaning from its reappearance in flashbacks, such connections become the movie’s very stuff.

The most arresting of the film’s images is the narrow six-story apartment house that towers above the surrounding buildings in what is a working-class district in Amiens. As the picture progresses, this building becomes an objectification of François’s condition: isolated, run-down, and perched precariously beyond the grasp of law and society. The steep high-angle views of the interior staircase –a maze of banisters and railings–functions as an objective correlative for François’s bewilderment and the inescapable character of the events he has endured.

To heighten the visual impression of enclosure, Carné decided that François’s room be constructed from four interlocking and immovable panels. This meant that Gabin could be filmed pacing from the door to the window opposite, and from the bed (on the left wall) to the chest of drawers (on the right), all within one shot. This is an extreme example of Carné’s need to create environments in which he can virtually hold captive those participating in his creative endeavors. In the shooting process, the fixed décor required the crew to be on the move constantly in order to remain out of camera range.

Production became more even more trying after the police fusillade. Carné shot this episode only once and with real bullets: “To film the door lock being fired at, my camera was placed about one meter from it, inside the room with the police shooting from outside. Only a few bags of sand piled sixty or seventy centimeters high separated us from the bullets… The sound of the fusillade was so strong that one of my assistants lost his hearing for a week.”

Carné insisted that the damaged door and half-shattered windowpanes not be tampered with. For the remainder of the production Gabin and crew had to enter and leave the set via a maze of ladders and catwalks. Although most of the company found this inconvenience amusing, Gabin was less enchanted. “Just let me know when your half-assed schemes are over,” he reportedly complained to Carné. Of course, what Gabin perceived as madness was method for Carné.

But even the punctilious director did not foresee one consequence of the real-bullet fusillade: “With the take completed, I turned toward the interior of the room. I noticed that the spray of bullets left its mark in the plaster. The effect was so strikingly lifelike that I jumped for joy. This was one of those happy occurrences that on rare occasions take place during production. I was all the more delighted because I hadn’t thought of this very important detail when I wrote the shooting script.”

Carné and Prévert were the sole commercial filmmakers of the 1930s to depict successfully the plight of an ordinary French factory worker…Despite the considerable fame and income they had acquired by the late 1930s, Carné and Prévert’s political ties remained with le people. Unlike rene Clair and Duvivier, they were committed to working-class ideals. Unlike Renoir, they viewed issues in terms of clear-cut heroes and villains.

Carné and Prévert were social melodramatists. Their representations of society are imbued with appeals to presumed values of good and evil. In his book, Peter Brooks describes literary social melodramatists – Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, James – in terms applicable to prewar Carné and Prévert