LE JOUR SE LEVE (Marcel Carné, 1939)

Written by Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert, Le jour se lève would remain Marcel Carné’s finest film. Its narrative complexity includes two interlocking romantic triangles and two different views of a single murder, one from outside the apartment in which the man is shot, the other from inside the apartment. Things indeed are paired in this film; two of its romantic characters, both orphans, are named François and Françoise. These pairings, as well as the pervasive atmosphere, suggest a dark dream. The film’s signature poetic realism unfolds in the German shadow across Europe that’s about to grip France. It evokes the fatalistic mood of a Europe which is increasingly left with only a soul to call its own.
     The film opens with the camera looking down upon a horse-driven transport; the camera slowly moves up to find the window of the apartment in question. This combination of mise-en-scène and camera movement seems visually contradictory, dreamlike, impossible; when the camera moves upwards, it seems somehow to be moving downwards. Although nothing is reflected (as in water), we feel we have entered an inverted world.
     Jean Gabin, tremendous, gives his best performance ever as François, the working-class mensch who is slowly dying anyway by what he must inhale at the factory where he works. François is the one who pulls the fatal trigger and is therefore cornered by the police. Despite his sturdy appearance, François is as vulnerable—as transient—as the rest of us. We well understand his dispatching the despicable Valentin (who else? Jules Berry) in a fit of rage.
      François meets his fate in a world glistening with symbolism. For instance, he is survived by his ringing alarm clock. Perhaps he has woken up in a free, a more just Europe.

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