Saturday, August 10, 2013

Marcel Carné | Le Jour se lève (Daybreak)

an ordinary man
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert (writers), Marcel Carné Le Jour se lève (Daybreak) / 1939

One of the great French films of the cinema movement that is generally described as “poetic realism,” Daybreak, in its quiet and intense portrait of an “ordinary man” coming to terms with fate, in its dark hues (which characterize so much of Carné’s cinema), and its highly theatricalized sets—these representing a poor working-class neighborhood on the edge of Paris—does, in retrospect, seem somewhat archaic. Gabin’s brooding portrait, one of the most riveting of French film-making, is almost a study in old-style acting, as he stares, with his large, drooping eyes (one sad and one happy, so claims his girlfriend Françoise—the beautiful Jacqueline Laurent) directly into the camera, while trying to quickly light another cigarette. Seeing Gabin one immediately perceives precisely what Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard claims of silent film stars: “In those days, we had faces!” Yet Gabin’s generally quiet and affable voice helps us to comprehend his true nature as well: he is a gentle dreamer, who after years of everyday sufferings, suddenly has found what almost seems a way out of his humdrum life through the equally gentle longings of Françoise. François (who works as a foundry worker, blowing sand across the new metal castings just created), and Françoise, both orphans, are clearly meant for one another. Both are seemingly innocents, pure at heart, simple in the pattern of their lives. And the film’s poetic artificiality merely reiterates that.                                  
Opposed to that world is that of the local bar-performers, the dog-trainer Valentin (Jules Berry) and his assistant Clara (the always watchable Arletty), who live in a world of sexual treachery and deceit. No sooner has François fallen in love with Françoise that he discovers that she is inexplicably involved with Valentin, who Berry plays with the oozing linguistic mastery of the devil incarnate. The very same night that François follows his would-be lover into a bar where Valentin is performing, his assistant Clara determines to abandon the performer and his lies, accidentally drawing François into a bar-room conversation, which brings the two into each other’s arms. Both, although they do not know it yet, will become victims of Valentin’s selfish behavior, François dying, in the end, for being drawn into Valentin’s orbit.
     It’s not just that Valentin seduces his women victims, but that he ultimately tortures them, just, as we are later told, he painfully tortures the dogs into submission. In what has to be one of the high points in artful lying in the cinema, Valentin tells François that he is the long-lost father of Françoise, and that his interest in her is that of a man who perceives himself as, long ago, having done a wrong, which he now wants to right.

      The truth, of course, is nothing like that, but is just a ruse to permit François to overlook his continued visitations to the young girl Valentin hopes to (and ultimately does) seduce.
        That we discover this story entirely in flashbacks as François has holed up in his roof-top bedroom after shooting Valentin, the murder of whom represents the first scene of the film, makes the events even more compelling. The audience already comprehends François is a dead man, a fact which, despite his newspaper check of the timetables of ships leaving the city, he too perceives, even at the very moment, in a justified fit of temporary madness, which has made him pull the trigger of the gun that Valentin has brought to kill him.
Even the pleas of François’ women, both Françoise and Clara, taken up by the neighbors who all recognize him as a good person and an “ordinary man,” the police will not/cannot let the situation amicably resolve. Because he is ordinary, François must be destroyed. And it is that subtle class statement that underlies Prévert’s and Carné’s film and helps to make us care so much for the accidental murderer. Yet we also recognize that it is a murder that need not have happened, for despite Valentin’s bluster and his outright admission that he has seduced François’ future wife, the factory worker was won; Valentin, despite his taunts and challenges, as he himself admits, is a loser, for the simple actions and faith of François have helped win Françoise’s love. Finally, it is only François’ ordinariness, and the male macho that comes with that, that does him in. As much as we might all wish for the death of the slimy villain Valentin, it is unjustifiable given the actual circumstances. And it is François’ “commonness”—what one might describe as the predictability of his actions—that will not allow his survival. Like the teddy bear, Boulou, which Françoise gives him early in the film, François is not only a kind of burly beast who feels trapped, but has only one ear, and, therefore, is unable to hear that the crowd is shouting for him to come out for a “fair” trial. Already isolated from the society  at large, he can do nothing but barricade himself in, ultimately sacrificing himself—and with that, his romantically pure ideals—at the very moment the police lob in a canister of tear gas to draw him out. The final sound we hear only reasserts the very ordinariness of his life, as his daily-set alarm clock goes off, calling him into the daybreak of his endless hard work at the foundry, a job that, because of its health-hazards, might have led him to an early death in any event.
      In short, François, alas, has been doomed from the very start—not just by the events recounted in the movie, but from the very beginning of his life.

Los Angeles, August 9, 2013

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