Le Jour se Lève
n 1952, Sight & Sound named Le Jour se lève the seventh-greatest film of all time. Even nowadays, although a movie about a chubby boxer has replaced Le Jour se lève on said list, the collaboration between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert retains a noteworthy reputation. However, unless one happens to live in a city large enough to hold a French melodrama retrospective, one must rely on DVD. The Criterion Collection had the decency to release the greatest Carné/Prévert work, Les Enfants du Paradis, some years ago. Happily, Janus Films is currently planning an enormous release of 50 DVDs, Le Jour se lève, among them. This release (coming around January, in my estimation) renders the film fully worthy of a second take.
I, for one, have only seen Le Jour se lève on VHS. Bad sound and picture transfer aside, I’m dying to see the movie with good subtitles, which shall hopefully desist from wanton capitalization and questionable spelling choices, not to mention long periods of stillness as the characters gesticulate wildly and speak rapidly. The current subtitles consist of long strings of sentence fragments, largely composed of dramatic revelations. We can approximate where in the sentence the speaker is based on the reactions of the other characters (rather broad reactions as the movie is from 1939). Even in this limited form, the film manages to be rank among the most moving ever made.
Being a Carné/Prévert production, the universe is destined for destruction from the opening shot, in which the camera happily follows a bucolic horse and cart before tilting up to reveal a doom-laden hotel. After an ominous ascension to the top floor, angry language and gunshots ring out. A man stumbles out of a room and painstakingly somersaults down two flights of stairs. The murderer, François (Jean Gabin), locks himself in his room and threatens to kill anyone who imposes upon his solitude. Basically, that’s the end of the movie, barring a few scenes that lend an unspeakably bleak connotation to the English translation of the film’s title: Daybreak. As François sits and waits for the law to close about him, he gazes onto a street that dutifully shimmers into an explanatory flashback.
As François slaves away in a hellish factory, a young girl (Jacqueline Laurent) enters the room bearing a bouquet of flowers. After introducing herself as Françoise (she shares a birthday with François), she discovers that her flowers have died, killed by the fumes from the factory. Needless to say, the movie is hardly subtle in its fatalism. “Everyone is asleep but us two,” Françoise later whispers, and François promptly rejoins, “It is as though the whole world were dead.” “You begin to live when you’re in love,” she trills (foolish girl, do you not realize whose film you appear in?). In response, the man pulls out a cigarette, coughs painfully, and mentions his bad health.
Mathematically moving toward its inevitable conclusion, Le Jour se lève introduces two more characters: Valentin and Clara. Valentin (Jules Berry) is a shady circus performer, but Françoise adores him. Clara (Arletty) has just left Valentin and immediately falls for François, who, in turn, is too smitten with the easily distracted Françoise to notice. For the most part, the film consists of leisurely conversations between two or three of these characters. Seemingly natural, these carefully structured dialogues reveal just enough information to produce the most tragic effect possible. This delightful paradox, teetering between spontaneity and artifice, is common to poetic realism, the stylistic movement this film represents.
The film functions effectively as a simple ode to love striving against evil. Yet although the mournful ride is most satisfying, Le Jour se lève succeeds precisely because it rises above its melodrama. Indeed, the audience is instructed what to think—Valentin brands dogs with a hot iron and flicks the wounds with his whip, whereas François moons nobly about his room, warring against the world for love. However, even the two police officers battling against François are young, handsome, and well-intentioned. Le Jour se lève subverts its own storytelling abilities, abandoning its persuasive delineations of good and evil to portray its characters in a flawed, yet humanistic light.
For all his cruelty, Valentin is immensely likable. With each new fantastic story he spins, we desperately want to believe him—proud eyes and acute self-awareness preclude his deceptive nature. Even when caught lying, he neatly drops his story and acknowledges his innocuous motives: protecting young Françoise from François, an unhealthy, penniless man with little to offer. And for all of her innocence (mealy virtuosity renders Jacqueline Laurent’s performance the weakest in the film), Françoise seems quite duplicitous. Her manipulation never emerges from the subtext, but her careless bobbing from man to man begs a few questions, especially for a self-proclaimed maiden of purity. François, aside from an irresponsible temper, has a distasteful, hypocritical obsession with virginity (notice which words provoke him to pull the murderous trigger).
Finally, there is Clara. Françoise is obsessed with Valentin, both men are obsessed with Françoise, and Clara herself is obsessed with François. With the help of a simple diagram, we soon realize that nobody pines for poor Clara. Nonetheless, while those about her contemplate suicide and swoon dramatically, Clara picks up the pieces. François eagerly submits to destruction, but Clara refuses to be crushed by the horrible world she inhabits. Nearly twenty years older than Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty brings resigned dignity to her woman of loose morals. While receiving far less screen-time than her companions, Clara is the heart and soul of Le Jour se lève. Beyond the martyrdom lies a film willing to sacrifice romance itself to escape the bleakness.