[A]mong the most fruitful collaborations between director and screenwriter in the history of cinema is the one between Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert. Prevert’s supremely literate approach to screenwriting was summarized by critic John Simon in this way: let the camera do what it will but the literature will remain. The finest of the films in which the two collaborated may have been The Children of Paradise (1945) – which was reviewed in this column – but Le Jour Se Leve (1939) or Daybreak comes a close second. Between them, Carne and Prevert were responsible for much of the poetic realism in the French cinema of the period – films largely about the working class but giving their working-class heroes a rounded presence generally lacking in later European cinema, notably from Italy. The actor Jean Gabin contributed strongly to many of these films through his presence and the highpoint of his working-class performances is perhaps Renoir’s The Human Beast (1938). If Carne was not the auteur that Renoir was and one cannot identify a personal vision in his films, the greatness of Le Jour se Leve is still difficult to deny.
Le Jour se Leve begins with foundry worker François (Jean Gabin) shooting and killing Valentin (Jules Berry) from behind a closed door. We hear a bit of conversation before the shooting and François then locks himself in his room at the top of many flights of stairs. He is soon besieged by the police, who fail in an attempt to shoot themselves into the room, as 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 until she met François had been the assistant in Valentin’s performing dog act. It becomes clear that the manipulative Valentin, an older man, had himself been involved with both the women, and he soon becomes extremely jealous of François.
If this beginning sounds commonplace, Valentin is no ordinary person because he is a man with a supreme gift for persuasion. François is told this right at the beginning by Clara but if we expect glibness, Valentin turns out to be almost diabolical in his ability with words. It is usually rare in cinema for a character to be introduced through superlatives and the character more than fulfilling expectations but this is the effect that Valentin has on us. When Valentin first visits François to ask him to keep away from Françoise, he ‘reveals’ to him emotionally that Françoise is his daughter and has François (and us) believing him. Françoise, Francois knows, was brought up in an orphanage but Valentin convinces him that he sought her out – because she was the very image of her dead mother.
The high points in the film are François’ encounters with Valentin because the encounters always take place at different levels. On the first level is the rivalry between the two men. François, Valentin admits, is the kind of man that women fall in love with – his strength, his honesty and his obvious charm. Valentin, on the other hand, understands that he is attractive to women because he feeds their fantasies, make them dream. Since most of them are poor in experience, he talks to them of the places he has been in and gives them pictures of the Riviera. At the second level, Valentin is the only person with whom François can interact one on one. The women are loveable but Valentin has conversation to make. At the third level, one cannot be certain that there is no homosexual attraction that François feels for Valentin. The film does not make any of this explicit but the electricity between the two men in their brief scenes together is palpable. All this happens in a series of flashbacks and we finally return to the present.
As we return to the present, 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 in her room at a nearby hotel. Then, two policemen climb over the roof of François’s building, preparing to throw tear gas grenades through the window of François’s room. Before they can do so, François, consumed with despair, shoots himself in the heart. The film ends with tear gas clouds filling the room around his lifeless body.
François’ death is by no means the only logical conclusion to the story as we have seen it so far. His killing was, after all, a crime of passion and he killed Valentin with the latter’s pistol. Valentin was so cocksure of his ability to talk François out of any kind of hasty action that he had flung the pistol carelessly on the table. After shooting Valentin, François tells him that his gifts had not done him much good and Valentin replies that François’ won’t do him good either. The general sense to be had is that both men have so become dependent on their rivalry that the winning of the woman can only be a poor substitute for its end. This actually seems to account for François’ suicide in some way.
Jean Gabin has an amazing presence but perhaps eclipsing him in this film is Jules Berry, whose filmography reveals no major films except this one. It is rare to find two male presences matched against each other as perfectly as in Le Jour se Leve because two stars playing against each other are usually trying to upstage one another – competing for the audience’s attention instead of exploring relationships and giving the film’s fiction more complexity. Another reason why a film like this cannot be made is perhaps that cinema has lost the sense of individual ‘evil’ which Valentin radiates. Le Jour se Leve, it must be remembered, was made before World War II and the political events of the 20th Century may have made the employment of ‘evil’ as a notion in a love story difficult. When cinema attempts it today it is only in the banal vampire film where, also, the woman cannot resist ‘evil’. Too much history has perhaps happened for us to imagine ‘evil’ in the context of love but history, it is evident, is only ‘noise’ because Le Jour se Leve has a vision of human evil that is far from dated.