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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Le jour se lève

Director: Marcel Carné
Country: France
Year: 1939

“Marcel Carné was an unfashionable figure long before his directing career came to an end. Scorned by a new generation of filmmakers, Carné grew more and more out of touch with contemporary developments, despite an eagerness to explore new subjects and use young performers…While future critics are unlikely to find much to salvage from the latter part of his career, films like Drole de drame and Quai des brumes, Le Jour se lève and Les Enfants du paradis, remain rich and complex monuments to a decade of filmmaking that will reward fresh and unbiased critical attention.”
Roy Armes, The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia

“If Carné never fulfilled his early promise, his status as an accomplished craftsman remains assured. His most memorable work, made between the fall of the Popular Front and the Liberation, stands as a lasting testimony to the mood of France at that time.”
Geoff Andrew, The Film Handbook

“Nowadays, they don’t gamble; they’re scared. They’re watching the ticket sales, day after day. They don’t want to take risks.”
Marcel Carné

Background

Marcel Carné, son of a cabinet maker, was born in 1906. At the age of twenty-three, he directed his first film, Nogent, El Dorado du dimanche, a silent film documenting one Sunday afternoon in the Marne Valley outside of Paris. In 1936, he released his first dramatic film, Jenny, a collaboration with surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. Carné and Prévert went on to make a string of successful films, refining an aesthetic that came to be known as poetic realism (which is a bit misleading, because it’s not actually “realistic” at all… perhaps a better name would be “romantic pessimism”).

Carné’s best-known film is 1945’s Children of Paradise, a three-hour epic about the lives and loves of characters in the Parisian theater district of the mid-1800’s. That synopsis doesn’t sound too promising, but Children of Paradise was voted “Best French Film Ever” in a 1995 poll of French critics, so it must be pretty good. Plus, it was made under Nazi occupation, so extra credit for that.

On the other hand: Second Best Film Ever, according to French critics? The Geisha Boy, starring Jerry Lewis.

Six years before the worldwide success of Children of Paradise, Carné directed this week’s film, Le jour se lève, starring two of his favorite actors, Jean Gabin and Arletty (yes, just the one name, like Madonna), both of whom appeared in several Carné films. In 1940, one year after its release, Le jour se lève was banned by the Vichy government, who deemed it demoralizing and probably a contributing factor to France’s humiliating defeat in the war. After the war it was re-released, and all was forgiven until 1947, when RKO purchased the rights to the story. Fearing that the existing French version might cut into the profit margin for the U.S. remake (The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda), RKO bought up and destroyed all extant copies of the film… or did they? Turns out, they missed a few, and now we have this wonderful Criterion/Janus edition to hold in our grubby mitts and fondle lovingly.

In 1952, Sight & Sound magazine named Le jour se lève as the seventh greatest film ever made. In 1999, The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made made space for such classics as Die Hard and Mrs. Doubtfire, but Le jour se lève was nowhere to be found. Ponder that.

Carné was gay, and lived for some years with Roland LeSaffre, an actor who appeared in several of his films. Though Carné’s sexual identity was never an overt thematic concern of his films, Philip French of the Observer speculates that “…the notion that true love will always be frustrated by fate and social circumstance may, in part at least, reflect Carne’s guilt over his homosexuality.” I would amend that to say “…reflect Carne’s experiences as a homosexual.”

Carné continued to make films into the 1970’s, but never recaptured his early success. He died in 1996 at the age of 90.

Synopsis

“A man has killed another… now, barricaded in his room, he recalls the circumstances that led him to murder…” says the opening title card. Also, according to the subtitles, Le jour se lève means “daybreak.”

It is either early morning or early evening, I’m not sure. A few scattered people and horses walk the streets. The camera takes us up the stairs of a foreboding apartment building. (“Being a Carné/Prévert production, the universe is destined for destruction from the opening shot,” says Learned Foote of Stylus magazine.) Inside a room at the top of the stairs, we hear an argument which ends with a gunshot. “What did that get you?” a voice sneers defiantly, and the victim staggers out onto the landing and down a flight of stairs, dying at the feet of a blind man.

Out in the street, a crowd gathers, but the story is confused: “A blind man got killed!” “No, it was suicide!”

“Poor guy!” comments one bystander. “It’s not easy being blind.” (Which reminds me of a true story, too long to recount right now, but it ends with a stoner dude observing laconically, “Ice… what a bitch for blind people.” Ask me later.)

The police pound on the door of the apartment. “Leave me the hell alone!” the occupant shouts, before firing a few well-placed warning shots through the door. The man with the gun is François, played by square-jawed Jean Gabin, whom we saw recently as Maréchal in Grand Illusion.

(Side note: Jeez, it’s irritating to place all of those accent marks correctly when writing about these European films.)

The police, apparently unaccustomed to the firing of guns, flee in terror. Inside, François sadly considers his broken heart and dwindling options.

“To hell with your spoons!” says a cop, pushing a fussy old lady out of the apartment building. She is worried about her heirloom silverware, but the police have no time for cutlery; the building must be evacuated! There’s a madman with a gun upstairs! Possibly a blind madman with a gun! Or something! Step away from the cutlery before I have to tase you, old woman!

The police question the neighbors, receiving nothing but glowing reviews about poor François: “Alcoholic? Why, there’s no finer man in this building!” Day turns to night as police and curious onlookers surround the building. Ineffectual snipers shoot into François’ room from the roof of an adjacent building.

“To think just yesterday…” says François, and the flashback begins (although it actually begins much earlier than yesterday, so that’s a bit misleading). François takes a train to the local factory, where he appears to be sandblasting large blocks of iron. Whatever it is, it’s a nasty business, but our François is no complainer. A pretty young woman carrying flowers wanders onto the factory floor, searching for the wife of the manager.

François wastes no time in putting his Pepé Le Pew moves on the Flower Lady, and she seems receptive until the heat and toxic fumes kill her bouquet, in an ominous harbinger of disaster to come.

Three weeks later, François and the Flower Lady (who, strangely enough, is A: named Françoise, B: shares François’ birthday, and – like François – was C: raised in an orphanage, which has led some viewers to speculate that they may be related) are apparently an item. “If love is good, let’s get to rammin'” says François (I’m paraphrasing), but Françoise coyly taps the brake pedal: “We haven’t known each other long enough…”

“They say lovers are more alive than other people,” she says later, ironing a dress. “Your bed is too narrow,” he says, inspecting her cramped sleeping quarters. She dreams of traveling to Monte Carlo, where the flowers bloom all year long, and rich folk sip mimosas at the high-stakes casino. “You make me laugh,” says François, not unkindly. “That’s all a pipe dream.” Inevitably, he steers the conversation back to his favorite topic: “How about if I spend the night?” Françoise the Flower Lady demurs, informing François that she is meeting someone else later. François leaves, but (sneaky!) hides around the corner and trails his beloved when she leaves for her mysterious F2F. Stupid, stupid men.

He follows her to some sort of downscale “France’s Got Talent!” show, where Françoise is excitedly watching Valentin and His Amazing Trained Dogs. There is tension between Valentin and his comely assistant/girlfriend, Clara. “Women are fools, and I’m the queen of the bunch,” Clara announces to François, who is skulking at the bar and glaring at the back of Françoise’s head.

“Do you want me to say you’re pretty?” François retorts grumpily. “I can’t tell under all that makeup.” “I always take it off before going to bed,” replies Clara, as the hunter becomes the hunted! After a bit of territorial pissing between the two men, roguish Valentin leaves with the innocent (?) Françoise and hangdog François stays at the bar to drown his sorrows with the tart-tongued and icily glamorous Clara.

daybreak_group

Back in the present, a squadron of police has gathered on the stairs, firing indiscriminately through François’ door.

Clara arrives, screaming: “He’s not a killer! He’s just an ordinary man!” The gunfire is deafening, and the police do not listen.

Back in the flashback, François and Clara are now shacking up. Strangely, they seem kinda happy, though François remains a bit cagey and Clara wants more: “You made no promises, I made no demands, but still… I get bored at night.”

Valentin arrives, unannounced and unwanted. “Want to see the dogs?” he asks Clara, but she is no longer interested in his dogs. François and Valentin appear to have some kind of unfinished business, and retire to a local watering hole to discuss (wait for it…) Françoise!

In the conversation that follows, we find that François has a secret: He has continued to court Françoise, even as he is knocking boots on a semi-regular basis with Clara. But Valentin has an even bigger secret to share: “If I have shown an interest in that girl (Françoise)… it is because she is my daughter.”

“I’ll be honest… I’m just a pitiful man,” he confesses. “All I want is that young girl’s happiness. And, frankly, I don’t think she can be happy with you.” Valentin tells a sad story involving a youthful indiscretion, a wasted life, and a too-late wish for reconciliation with his abandoned daughter.

François isn’t buying: “Listen here… I was raised in an orphanage, too. And if my folks showed up now to play patty-cake, I’d let ‘em have it.”

Later, he confronts Françoise with this new information, and receives yet another shock: “My father? He’s not my father. He has a habit of telling crazy stories…” Françoise explains that Valentin was just a friend, just an old man who treated her with kindness, and she felt somewhat indebted to the creepy dog trainer, even though there was no romance.

Now that that’s all cleared up, François pledges himself to Françoise, promising to break things off with Clara, if Françoise will likewise break things off with Valentin. She agrees, they canoodle in the hothouse (remember, she’s the Flower Lady), and François admires her ornate ceramic necklace. “We’ll be happy together, you’ll see,” he assures his beloved. “Now that we’re together, everything will change.” Indeed, François, indeed.

True to his word, François breaks the news to Clara. She’s been around the block a few times, our Clara, and takes it with equanimity: “Good thing we’re not in love. Imagine parting if we were in love.” Before they part, she hands him a gift: “Here’s something to remember me by… he gave one to each of his conquests.” Yes, it is the same kind of ceramic necklace that Françoise was wearing in the previous scene. Dammit!

Back in the present, the sun is rising (“daybreak,” remember?). François steps out onto his balcony to yell at the crowd: “Sure I’m a killer! Killers are a dime a dozen! Beat it, all of you! Go home and read it in the paper!”

“Not every killer dies for it!” “The police will work something out!” “Come down, François! You’re a good man!” shout his friendly neighbors, hoping to avert tragedy.

Françoise arrives, collapses, and is taken in by Clara. A good egg, that Clara. And so beautiful. Sigh…

A SWAT team infiltrates the building, as François’ flashbacks near their fatal conclusion: Valentin arrives, enraged. “Françoise refuses to see me! I demand to know what’s going on! …So I told a little fib the other day! So I’m not her father!”

Valentin brought a gun. “I meant to kill you. I have a lot of great ideas, but I never see them through. I’m pathetic.” François, initially calm, becomes increasingly enraged at the broken, desperate, dirty old man standing before him.

Of course, Valentin eventually utters the words that drive François over the edge: “Me and the young girl, we… how could I resist? I adore youth!”

“Shut your filthy trap!” screams François, grabbing the gun and firing.

Clara takes care of Françoise, who is suffering from an attack of the vapors. The SWAT team prepares to shoot tear gas into François’ room. “He’ll cough and choke,” says a neighbor. “But he’s used to that from the sand.”

François looks at the gun. Navy SEALs rappel from the rooftop. François shoots himself in the heart (those crazy, romantic Frenchies!). Tear gas fills his room, billowing uselessly over his lifeless body. The End.

What I Liked

Oh, how I loved this film! On a technical note, the cinematography and set design is pretty impressive for 1939. I loved the tall, narrow apartment building – probably a matte painting but cool nonetheless. I loved the way the camera crept up and down the stairwell, in and out of the window, over the crowd… I also loved the factory set, everyone wearing space suits except Françoise.

All of the acting was excellent (well, except for Jacqueline Laurent as Françoise, who was a little flat), but I have to give a particular shout-out to Arletty (born Léonie Marie Julie Bathiat) as Clara. Arletty was a French fashion model, singer, stage and screen actress who was imprisoned after WWII for having had an affair with a German soldier during the occupation. “My heart is French,” she replied defiantly, “but my ass is international.”

Regardless of whether that story is true or just the figment of a crafty Wikipedia editor’s imagination, Arletty is fantastic in this film – sexy, sympathetic, strong, and funny. She has a part that could have turned into a one-note shrew or femme fatale, but she never stoops to caricature. She is frankly sexual without seeming lascivious, tart without ever being simply a bitch, hurt by two men but philosophical, broken-hearted but never, ever broken. Robin walked in halfway through this movie, and the first thing she said was, “Who is that? She’s gorgeous!”

Another thing I loved: Le jour se lève is genuinely adult, unapologetically sexy. Without leering or judging, the script acknowledges the sexual desires of well-rounded adult characters. François is blunt about his desire for a roll in the hay, but he isn’t a jerk about it. Both François and Françoise carry on simultaneous relationships with two lovers, openly, without apology, and the script does not seem to condemn them for this. Plus, there’s a lot of fun, ribald bantering. Of course, both male leads die in the end, so you could argue that they ultimately pay a steep price for their liaisons, but I choose to ignore that for the moment.

What else? Le jour se lève is, in its broad outlines, a noir film: A basically decent man makes a couple of poor decisions, which causes his life to spiral inexorably downward into heartbreak and murder; add femme fatale to taste. And those are my favorite kind of movies. But this is more of a romantic noir; there is no crime involved (well, except the murder which frames the story), just a quartet of damaged people trying to get their emotional and sexual needs met and destroying each other in the process. Except for Clara. Nothing can destroy her.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

As previously mentioned, Jacqueline Laurent as Françoise was the one dull spot in the film. 18 at the time the film was shot, physically slight and surrounded by a trio of powerhouse actors, she never made an impression.

Should You See It?

Oh yeah, definitely. Like film noir? Doomed romance? Twisty plots told in reverse? Great B/W cinematography? Sexy banter? See it, already!

Next: Jules and Jim

4 Comments

  1. The sniper would be Jeremy Renner, and he would be shooting from a helicopter. Also: FIREBOMBS.

  2. Okay, this is going to be awkward…having first watched the wrong film (who could blame me? It had the same stars, director, etc.) and then reading Jason’s review, then writing the review for the film I DID watch and now, after Jason was nice enough to send me the Original film – I’ve watched it and, well, will now comment on it. See…? Awkward.

    So here we are, back in France with this director and this actor (I’m too lazy to scroll up and write their names down). What we’ve got is that he’s a swell guy in love with a young florist delivery gal but schutping another gal. It’s all a bunch of hot-and-botheredness and I won’t recap the details that Jason already gave you above.

    Okay, in short. Our Hero (?) has taken a few shots at some cops after killing some guy we know little about. We then flash back a few weeks when the Hero pitches woo with a florist delivery gal. She seems pretty virignal and they date for a couple weeks when our Hero (I think) wants to get in her pants. When she says “no” and then dumps his date to go to a dog performing show – he’s a bit curious. Did he put on too much AXE body spray? Did he forget to floss? So he goes in pursuit of her, following her to a show where a guy has his trained dogs do tricks. Seems the assistant is a bit of pain (or something) and so the guy fires her. She ends up in our Hero’s arms – but he’s still in love with cute girl that is not putting out. Add a bunch of inane dialogue and then cut to when our Hero shoots and kills the dog trainer and, well, there’s your story.

    So what of my review? Well, I found this film to be interesting on one particular level…wondering how I would make the film. In all honesty I found this film to be WAY TOO TALKY for my liking. Just like tons and tons of annoying small talk. Concept is great – I’d love to re-make the film right now if I could – but the over all production OF that concept left me really hanging.

    Did I mention there’s small talk?

    All-in-all, I found the film a bit on the boring side. It had its moments and the acting is top notch, as is the photography, but the overall concept I think is interesting but I’d much rather have more fighting and shooting than “pre-snuggling talking.” Did I mention there’s talking?

    In Hollywood today, I can tell you, John Travolta would be the guy holed up in his apartment. Denzel Washington would be the guy trying to talk him down and Ashton Kutcher would be the sniper whose job is to “take him out.” There’d probably be a lot less talking.

  3. After watching Le jour se leve and loving it, I ordered Port of Shadows, as well. Can’t wait to watch it! But do check out Le jour se leve if you get a chance, as well. It’s great, and many critics compare it favorably with Port of Shadows.

  4. OKAY, COMPLETE DISCLAIMER HERE: I watched and reviewed the WRONG FILM. The film I watched and reviewed was “Port of Shadows” or, in the French: “Le quai des brumes” not “Le jour se lève” I don’t know why I reviewed the wrong film. First, they star the same actor. Second, they’re directed by the same guy. I could blame “Netflix” for screwing it up. I must say that I think that when I put in Jason’s French title, it came up with “Port of Shadows” and NOT whatever the hell “Le jour se leve” is…

    So, disclaimer out…here’s my review for “Port of Shadows.” I strongly encourage you to watch it as it kicks total ass.

    Jason, feel free to not post this review as it goes against the integrity of this exercise but you are the beloved Webmaster who can do all, so I leave it to your wise discretion.

    Here goes (and sorry for the screw-up):

    I absolutely love a good bitch-slap. Nothing puts a smile on my face faster than seeing some guy take it to another guy by giving him a good ol’ fashioned bitch-slap.

    If there was a definition of “Bitch-Slap” it would read something like: Noun/Verb – the act of slapping someone across the face with only the fingers used, usually right-to-left and then quickly left-to-right using the back of the fingers. Ironically, usually used by men as an act of defiance against another man.

    Typically, when used, the person getting slapped is, basically, having his man-hood handed to him. It’s like being spanked as an adult. It’s demoralizing, insulting, disrespectful. If I was bitch-slapped I would probably punch the other guy in the face and/or kick him in the nuts. It’s action is not to injure the other person, or oneself. It is solely there to bring someone, mentally, to their knees. Oh, and, usually…the person who is getting bitch-slapped deserves it. If not worse.

    In the film “Port of Shadows” you don’t get just ONE Bitch-Slap, you get THREE!

    As for the film… When I saw that the title was “Port of Shadows” I was immediately thinking that I would be watching something in the “film-noir” vein. Of course when you’ve already watched a dozen+ of these movies and assume titles will actually have something to do with what the story is about, I have found myself on the short side of the assumption. How happy I was when the title “Port of Shadows” DID fall into bits and pieces of the “film-noir” genre.

    Our hero is Jean, a deserter from the French Army. I don’t know if this film is set in WWII or what, but he’s left the army and hiding out in a small French seaside town where everyone complains of the fog (though I never actually see any).

    Picked up while hitch-hiking he gets in a fight with the truck driver but still ends up at his destination. Broke but with a pack of cigarettes. And in a film-noir, really, how much does the hero need?

    Lost and hiding and hungry he gets invited to a small bar, the “Panama.” This is one of those “Movie Bars” where you wished one existed and would love to sit in the shadows and listen to people talk deals and discuss hit-men and ladies of ill-repute would offer their wares. Do these really exist? I have no idea. Still, it would be great if they did.

    Previous to Jean’s sojourn to the “Panama” we meet a team bumbling thugs. They’re putting the pressure a guy named Zalman (or something) a guy who looks like a music professor who has spent too much time in the classroom. They question where a missing guy is and Zalman (who hates Jazz) tells him he knows nothing in a way that, of course, we know he knows everything. As much as these three thugs put pressure on Zalman we kind of know that they’re all hot-air and finger pointing. More bark, no bite.

    Speaking of bark and bite, there’s a wonderfully cute dog in this film.

    Once at the “Panama” Jean finds out more information about the town and the locals. He meets up with a suicidal painter (are there any other kind?), a guitar playing bar owner, a drunken guy who steals alcohol from the ship yard and the beautiful Nelly.

    Jean, in his ever charming way, immediately assumes (and probably correctly) that she’s a prostitute. There to make a few bucks. She says she’s 17 and it’s not long before everyone has figured out that Jean is hiding from the military and that he needs to escape or face prosecution for something he had done (it’s not ever really explained). Needing a new identity, he hides out in the “Panama” and eats cheese and talks about love to Nelly. There, of course, is that INSTANT ATTRACTION that these stories provide. You know 15 seconds into their conversation about the pointlessness of love that they’ll fall in love and split the sheets.

    Before they can continue their conversation, gun shots ring out. Seems the three thugs have followed Zalman up to the “Panama” and are trying to pressure him into giving up the info on the missing fellow and the “papers.” As in any good film noir everyone is connected with everyone and we’ll soon learn that Zalman is Nelly’s “uncle.”

    After the bar owner shoots up the car, they bring in Zalman who is bleeding (but it’s not his blood). Nelly runs away because she “can’t bear to see him” and slips a few bucks into Jean’s pocket.

    The next day Nelly returns to the “Panama” and she and Jean talk a walk on the docks (with the dog following). While this is going on, the painter decides to take a long walk off a short pier and leaves all his belongings, plus 850 francs, to Jean.

    While they dangle their feet Nelly informs Jean that she needs to return to town. The three thugs show up and the ring leader puts a little jealousy smack-down on Nelly. Jean comes to her rescue, punching one guy in the face and bitch-slapping the ring leader not once, but TWICE! The guy almost bursts into tears which make his cohorts laugh at him.

    With dog in tow Jean heads into town and, though broke still, he chooses to buy Nelly a decorative box. In pure Noir fashion, the owner of the store is Zalman (or something) and Nelly is there. It becomes obvious to her protective uncle that Jean likes her but that Jean isn’t really telling the truth a lot of the time. While drinking some cognac Nelly finds a cuff-link from the missing man and promptly faints – giving up the cuff-link to the uncle.

    Still, Nelly wakes up and agrees to meet up with Jean at a carnival. When Jean returns to the “Panama” he finds the clothing, shoes, passport and the francs. After a change of clothing the owner grabs a rock and sinks the uniform in the ocean.

    Jean is conflicted, though. He has feelings for Nelly but he also needs to escape and a transport ship is heading to Venezuela the next morning and he can book passage (along with this dog). But a pesky ship doctor peppers him with questions about painting…does the doctor know he’s not a painter? Or is he a clueless buffoon.

    That night after meeting up with Nelly they decide to go on the bumper cars where the thugs are enjoying themselves knocking off people’s “chapeaus.” When the head thug knocks Jean’s hat off, Jean retaliates by, used guessed it. Bitch-slapping him. This time the head thug threatens to “plug him.” But, again, bark v. bite thing.

    Nelly and Jean hook up (yes, literally) and admit to loving each other. He tells her that he needs to leave on the ship and she is willing to let him go (a great emotional moment in the film). But…seems a body has shown up on shore along with his uniform. Nelly knows that Jean had nothing to do with it and decides to confront her uncle.

    Well, Zalman don’t like being confronted about bodies and after some expository dialogue that implies that Zalman has been molesting Nelly he starts attacking her. Jean, over-hearing what is going on, kills Zalman – violently I might add (though it’s all implied, we don’t see the blood). Now he REALLY has to escape…but he’s torn! He loves Nelly, but he doesn’t want to drag her into all this. She loves him, but wants him to be free. The boat is about to leave and HIS DOG IS ON IT!!

    Running towards the boat, the head thug plugs Jean in the middle of the street with about five bullets (so we know Jean will die). In a truly romantic, beautiful moment, Nelly hugs Jean in the street and he asks her to kiss him. And the dog runs to his rescue…but it’s too late.

    What I liked:

    This was a great “small” film. A film that used only a few locations (store, bar, hotel, street) but made it feel much bigger.

    Most of the acting was spot-on terrific. The story convoluted enough for a film-noir but not SOOOO much that you’re scratching your head about it.

    I also loved the understated way that the violence that came before Jean is talked about but never shown. A sense of foreboding fills every frame. You know it’s not going to end happy but you find yourself caring for these characters anyway.

    The dog.

    Bitch-slaps.

    What I didn’t like:

    The spineless head thug wasn’t a strong enough of a character, to me, that these others would follow him. He was just a little too wimpy for my tastes.

    The beard on Zalman seemed a bit “plastic.”

    The print that Criterion used was good but not great. The quality of film stock seemed to shift DURING THE SCENES. Good print, bad print, good print.

    Bottom line:

    Great little noir-ish film. Very enjoyable. Hit all the right notes. Loved it!

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