Starring: Jean Gabin, Arletty, Jules Berry
Director: Marcel Carné
Probably the best of the Carné/Prevert collaborations after Les Enfants du Paradis, Le Jour se Leve (1939) has an unconventional structure and a very odd story that curls off in unexpected directions like a waft of smoke from one of Jean Gabin’s cigarettes. It starts with Gabin’s Francois – a sandblaster by trade – shooting a man and then holing up in his room at the top of a six-storey boarding house that has to be one of the thinnest, gauntest buildings in cinema. Then we cut between scenes of the police heavy-handedly riddling his room with bullets and a series of bitter-sweet flashbacks that establish the motive for the crime.
In these scenes, we see Francois fall in love with a simple flower girl, Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent) – except that she’s not so simple after all. She seems to be infatuated with another man: Valentin (Jules Berry), a music hall dog trainer. It’s a crazy choice, and not just because Valentin is old enough to be her father. He’s seedy, twitchy, unpredictable, possibly a bit mad, certainly a compulsive liar, and a womanizer to boot. Discouraged, Francois takes up in a casual way with Valentin’s assistant, Clara (Arletty), who’s too world-weary to expect better, but wouldn’t mind if Francois fell deeply in love with her.
It’s a film that portrays sexual relationships, and the perversity of desire, with a frankness that was entirely beyond the Hollywood of the time. What is supposed to be a love story ends up as a strange bond of hatred between these two contrasting men – the working class stiff who has done the right thing all his life and the rootless spiv who never does the right thing out of principle. All of the cast give excellent performances – Arletty is touchingly vulnerable, Laurent childishly luminous but out of reach, Gabin stoical yet teetering on despair. Most eyes, though, will go to Jules Berry’s Valentin, with his wide lapels, his twitching nose, his infuriating giggle. It’s a brilliantly written and acted role, probably the earliest complete portrait of a sociopath to be put on screen.
Shooting in the studio (the boarding house and the street corner beneath it were one vast set), Carné creates a world of twilight and webs of shadow that come across with shimmering subtlety on this new restoration. This release also reinstates some cuts made by the Vichy government, including a brief nude scene by Arletty that was probably the first of its kind in mainstream French cinema. The visuals brim with the poetic melancholy for which Carné is justly famous, but it’s the mordancy of Prevert’s script and the black humour of Jules Berry’s performance which are the source of the film’s continuing power to trouble and surprise even today, three-quarters of a century after it was first released.
Le Jour se Leve will be in cinemas from 3rd October to celebrate its 75th anniversary.