Adapting his and composer Joseph Kosma’s ballet Le Rendez-vous, which Roland Petit had choreographed, Jacques Prévert completed one more collaboration with filmmaker Marcel Carné: except for a couple of songs, the non-musical Les portes de la nuit, the record expense of whose production and overwhelming financial failure damaged Carné’s postwar reputation and, shortly, ended Prévert’s screenwriting altogether. Over the years, however, the film has attracted mounting appreciation.
Much of this shift can be attributed to the degree to which France has come to acknowledge the moral cloudiness that compromised its patriotism during the war and the Occupation. Carné’s film came too soon, one might say, for the French public, even French critics, to process its exposure of guilty and shameful national secrets, including wartime profiteering. One of the pivotal bits of the past involves a young man’s denunciation of a neighbor, a member of the Resistance, to the Germans. In Guy Sénéchal’s case, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the selfish, cowardly tree.
Other things that once weighed in against the film now favor it. Studded with statues and crisscrossing loose beams, Alexandre Trauner’s most conspicuous set once seemed artificial, fastidious and overly ornate; now it seems a remarkable Surreal representation of France’s discombobulation and disarray in terms of national and cultural identity. The lead role of Jean Diego had been meant for Jean Gabin, who turned it down, with some obscure 24-year-old kid named Yves Montand—Piaf’s boy-toy at the time—replacing him. Well, now we look very differently on Montand, who in fact gives a superlative performance, full of wryness and impulsive charm as he falls in love one fateful night with “the most beautiful girl in the world”—a role that had been meant for Marlene Dietrich, Gabin’s partner at the time, but which is luminously played by 20-year-old Nathalie Nattier. Together, Montand and Nattier help conjure a mesmerizing, deeply affecting aura of Prévert- Carnéan doomed romance. Jean and Malou (Guy’s sister, by the way), young as they are, unite—poignantly briefly—in the shadow of what Prévert-Carné’s “poetic realism” had in the thirties anticipated with fatalism and dread. An even younger pair of lovers, with whom Jean and Malou are compared, exist free of this shadow, suggesting that Jean and Malou may need to be sacrificed to time for France to realize its future.
Jean is very much a hero—a laborer who had been part of the Resistance. Malou’s jealous spouse, Georges, brilliantly played by Pierre Brasseur, is a businessman who embodies self-interest and an incapacity for self-criticism. Territorial, he cannot accept that Malou left him before she and Jean came together. Jean must be “the cause” of his marital breakup.
Les portes de la nuit unfolds in a single day and night, from gray dawn to gray dawn, with city-wide pans of Paris framing the action. A station of Le métro is a visual focus; it is gracefully identified with humanity. However, it is a weakness that the film’s claim to unity proves insufficient to discipline an unwieldy narrative. It doesn’t help that the figure of a homeless man who identifies himself as Destiny keeps poking into this narrative, predicting one character-outcome after another. This movie, then, is far from perfect.
Its most haunting aspect, though, is its ace-in-the-hole: the immemorial song by Kosma and Prévert that in its English version we know in the States as “Autumn Leaves.”
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