Monday, November 07, 2011

Le Jour se Lève (1939)

A French Allegory of the Working Man’s Life

“He’s not a criminal. He’s just an ordinary man.”

Marcel Carné’s 1939 film Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak) is often considered the French director’s greatest work, and also one of the most significant films of the French Poetic Realism period. This psychological drama, based on a story written by Montmatre art dealer Jacques Voit, is one of several films made by the successful partnership of director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. While Le Jour se Lève is not an overtly political film, nonetheless it’s a film created and impacted by its times. The early 30s saw French Premiers using decree laws (and thus avoiding parliamentary debate) to cut wages and raise taxes which resulted in widespread demonstrations, riots and strikes across France. Léon Blum’s Popular Front government of 1936-7 heralded in a fresh optimism for workers through the Matignon Agreements--a series of new labor laws and improved working conditions (including the creation of a 40 hour work week, 2 weeks holiday a year, and the right to strike). By 1939, externally, the threat of impending war overshadowed France while internally, with the dissolution of the Popular Front (an alliance of the French Communist Party, the French Section of the Workers’ International, the Radical and Socialist Party and a few smaller antifascist parties), France saw a return to right-wing elements and of course eventually the collaborationist government led by Marshal Pétain. Under Pétain’s rule, Léon Blum was shipped off to a concentration camp, and The Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO) went into full operational mode with the result that an estimated 650,000 men and 44,000 women were sent from France to Germany as forced labour--a form of slavery that is perhaps the worst insult to a worker. In 1939, however, these horrors were yet to be realised, but to many French workers, men and women who had memories of working 14-17 hour days, the demise of the Popular Front signaled a return to the past. Significantly, Le Jour se Lève appears to be set earlier than the passage of the Matignon Agreements.

Le Jour se Lève can be seen as a simple tale of love which goes wrong when jealousy and rage enter the picture. The film, however, can also be seen an allegory for the times. Director Carné is not concerned with showing a general view of French society--instead the film offers a glimpse of the existence of an uncomplicated French factory worker, François (Jean Gabin in his thirtieth film)--a doomed Everyman, a member of the proletariat who wants very little from life.

The film begins with a murder which takes place within François’ small bleak, isolated room located at the very top of a narrow, six-story building. The sense of doomed fatalism is established immediately and grows menacingly until the film’s spectacular conclusion. François’s room is seen as an inescapable trap while internal shots of the building emphasize the maze-like layers of floors and stairs. In the very first scene, a shot rings out, a man tumbles down the stairs dying, and a blind man hearing the noise, is unable to grasp what has happened. At this point, François, in a state of siege and holed up in his room, does not try to escape. Instead he spends a sleepless night, chain-smoking and recalling the events--parceled into three distinct episodes--that led to the murder. The film’s structure alternates the three episodes of François’s memories with three increasingly aggressive attempts by the police to storm the room.

Each of the three episodes of memories follows the chain of events that led to the murder. In the first section of flashbacks, less than three months earlier, factory worker François is interrupted in his hazardous work as a sandblaster by the arrival of a lovely, fresh-faced young girl named Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent). She’s there to deliver flowers, and François and Françoise (back to that French Everyman/woman idea), both orphans, very quickly establish some common ground. An almost idyllic relationship begins, and the courtship is chaste and whimsical.

During a visit to Françoise’s lodgings, François notes that her mirror is covered by postcards from the Riviera. To François, the Riviera is a world of absurdities where one can pay 10 francs to “watch the English” walking along the promenade. Françoise, however, is not so dismissive of Nice, and when she describes the climate and vegetation of the place she’s never visited, her face is filled with distant longing. While François is not overtly suspicious of the postcards, Françoise’s reaction sets off alarms and when Françoise breaks a date to meet a friend, François acts on his suspicions by following her. The “friend” as it turns out is sleazy, ferrety showman Valentin (Jules Berry), a cruel dog trainer who also sidelines training the many women in his life to put up with his love-‘em-and-leave-‘em behaviour. As François sits at the bar in order to watch Françoise greet Valentin, he meets Valentin’s disgruntled partner, his attractive and sexually provocative assistant Clara (Arletty), and the two exchange words that hint of possible sexual encounters. Clara, after putting up with Valentin for three years, has decided to leave him, but Valentin doesn’t seem quite ready to let her go yet.

During François’ second phase of memories, it’s about two months later. François appears to have a relationship with both women, and although it’s not quite defined whether or not his relationship with Clara is sexual, it seems likely. According to Clara, François stops by “like a tourist, seeing the sights.” One scene shows her emerging from the shower obviously naked, but the possibility of sex is squashed when Valentin arrives. While it seems that he’s come to discuss Clara, she knows better. Familiar with Valentin’s womanizing ways, she knows that he’s there to discuss Françoise with François, and as it turns out Valentin questions François about his intentions towards Françoise. This is where Valentin, a manipulative, pathological liar who resents François’s relationships with both women, drops a bombshell.

The third section of François’s memories brings the story full circle with the arrival of Valentin in François’s shabby room earlier that day.

While it’s easy to see Le Jour se Lève as a story of jealousy, there are several threads embedded in the dialogue which hint that François’s crime of passion has a great deal to do with the pitiful lot of the average working stiff. In one scene, François and Françoise enter the florist greenhouse--a veritable Garden of Eden compared to the bleak dark concrete streets shown throughout the rest of the film. As Françoise reclines on her back, François confesses his love and agrees to no longer see Clara. In a moment of revelation, the usually laconic François leaks discontent, acceptance and finally weary defeat at his lot:

“Work. No work. Is there a job I haven’t done? All different, all the same. Spray painting, lead painting. Lead painting’s no good, just like the sand gun. When I couldn’t fight it anymore, I just gave in. Things went from bad to worse but I got used to it. You know, like waiting for a streetcar in the rain. You try to get on. Ding! It’s full. Second car, third car, ding, ding! You’re left standing in the rain like a sucker.”

The thread of the endless drudgery of François’s life also occurs in the bedroom scene which takes place between François and Clara. She complains about being alone at night, while he defends his absence stating that nights are for sleep:

“A night of love. You’re crazy. That stuff’s for books or for guys with nothing to do, and even then who knows? When you bust your back all day, the night’s for getting some sleep. Whereas daytime…that’s another matter.”

While Valentin’s life is one of irresponsibility, traveling around, picking up women, using, seducing and abandoning them, François has broken his back in various hazardous jobs with the result that he’s now suffering from lung congestion. When Valentin, a self-proclaimed “nomad,” goads François with his obvious ill-health, François is nettled enough to react violently. Later Valentin once again goads François by taunting him on the subject of “manual laborers” while sneering and simultaneously arguing that as a man of intelligence and education, “I can do exactly as I please.” Valentin, who’s described by Clara as “rotten like a piece of old fruit,” doesn’t seduce women by his looks; he seduces women by exploiting their dreams and capitalizing on his honey-tongued reminiscences of sunshine and mimosa. François, on the other hand, can only vaguely promise Françoise a day in the country picking lilacs sometime in the distant future. Doubtless Valentin’s seduction of Françoise and mistreatment of Clara contribute to the crime, but Valentin’s feckless behaviour is the antithesis of the sheer drudgery of François’s life and is inarguably a trigger point that provokes violence.

The allegory of the destruction of the working man is also evidenced by the appearance of the police who swoop down like proto-fascist storm troopers turning on the crowd in order to suppress their obvious popular support for François. The massive force of men who set out to contain and then systemically destroy François is strongly similar to the pursuit and annihilation of the various members of the Bonnot gang in 1912. As with the Bonnot gang, the police aren’t interested in surrender, and as far as François is concerned, he’s already dead, snuffed out by the forces in society which are beyond his control:

“A killer! Now there’s something to gossip about! Sure, I’m a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen! They’re everywhere! Everyone kills! They just do it quietly, so you don’t see. It’s like sand. It gets deep inside you.”

Murnau’s influence on Carné is evident throughout this beautifully structured film which manages to convey emotion through the merest flicker of the eye. The film’s final spectacular scene (Carné insisted on real bullets), complete with the irony of the alarm clock, is one of the most memorable endings in film history. 

(editor's note:  Although the trailer is in French, no translation is necessary)

Written by Guy Savage


  1. Really enjoying your blog! Keep up the great work!

  2. Great review of a wondrous film. Jean Gabin a marvellous actor, it's all in the eyes, French cinema is the best!


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