This article contains plot spoilers.
Innovation lies at the heart of Marcel Carné’s fifth film, Le Jour Se Léve (Daybreak, 1939). The innovation of narrative and how to visually interpret it; the innovation of provocative material and how to deal with it; and the innovation of producing creatively expressive work in a time where expression was the enemy of the regime. Carné’s film isn’t simply a brilliant piece of cinema but an essential lesson in how to use the medium to push against the wall. Ironically, it’s also the reason why this is the first time, in its 75th year of anniversary no less, that the film can be seen in full.
Le Jour Se Léve deals in flashback as to why, in its opening few moments, a man is shot by François (Jean Gabin); a friendly but fiery worker who has fallen in love with Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent). This in itself is the film’s first innovation. The idea of flashback, both in narrative terms and the way Carné handles such a narrative device, is all but unprecedented in mainstream French sound drama beforehand. What now seems like a convention, often used heavily in sub-genres such as film noir, must have been magnificent to behold in its initial viewing, albeit before it was banned. The effect does, however, still stand, with some extremely Cocteau-like fades between times, always keeping the place static to show the difference in circumstance.
Through these flashbacks, the viewer learns of a strange crossover of loves; the man who died at the beginning is in fact a well known dog trainer, Valentine (Jules Berry), who, in spite of knowing that he is Françoise’s father, allows her to fall in love with him. This allows for an intriguingly provocative hint towards incest and the whole of the film’s drama revolves around this potential. In other words, the film is a typical brand of Carné tragedy, infusing dangerous material with genuinely heartbreaking emotional fallout. Add to this an affair between François and Vanetine’s assistant, Clara (Arletty), and the emotional complexity is complete.
Le Jour Se Léve also benefits greatly from a moody and chiaroscuro visual palette. Paris has never looks so Gothic or foggy, bereft with empty alleyways and empty morals. This was something Carné had all but perfected in a previous film, Le quai des brumes (1938), literally translating into Port of Shadows. Going against the optimism of the title, Daybreak, Carné’s film could equally be called Streets of Shadows as there’s little in the way of optimistic hope for the characters or the encroaching situation of the director’s reality outside of the film.
After being heavily cut, the Vichy Regime banned the film outright. Some of the reasons behind this are staggering but ultimately the film was pushing boundaries in a time when everything outside the hive-mind of fascism was suppressed. Interesting cuts range from the obvious, the almost full nudity of one of the characters (a surprising event for a mainstream film in 1939), to the ludicrous in the removal of several Jewish names from the film’s credits. All are restored in this definitive version as well as a general restoration which presents Carné’s moody images as crisp and as sensuous as ever.
Perhaps most strikingly in the film is the sum of consummate performances on show. Carné would later prove to be a master at extracting astonishingly layered performances from actors and that begins here. Jean Gabin had already worked with Carné in the previously mentioned Port of Shadows (and the year before that had worked in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, Le Grande Illusion in 1937), so knows the technique with which to present his character analysis. He is France’s ultimate tragic figure, bearing a face designed for heartbreak and torment. From tender flirtation with Françoise to mad rage during the film’s final moments, his performance defines a whole era of French cinema.
With this tragic lead, Carné rings every inch of drama from the film’s closing moments; a conclusion to the mystery of why he shot Valentine in the first place and what he intends to do now being holed up in his flat and under siege by the police. The vileness of Valentine’s actions were too much to cope with for someone so purely emotional. As he sits in his flat deciding what to do, after shouting at his fellow workers in fear and in anger at the impossibility of their complete understanding, his death is one of the most important and symbol in western film.
The police throw tear gas into his flat but it is already too late; he has taken a gun to his own heart. As the gas rises above his body, the sheer imagery suggests some form of rising, as if the white light behind is representing a small glimmer of hope. Like France and the Vichy regime, François had succumb to the pressure even before the full violence had started. Yet, as Carné shows in the final shot, they went knowing that something new would arise in a future hope, whether it be the happiness of Françoise or the entire future of her country.
Le Jour Se Léve is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 27th of October.