on 6 September 2010
There are certain films (Pepe le Moko, the Marius trilogy, Le Crime du M. Lange, Le Quai des Brumes) that could only have been made at a certain time and in a certain place - France in the 1930's. "Jour" is one of them. It has all the ingredients that made certain French films of the epoch so very special - breathtakingly beautiful photography, a deceptively simple plot, wonderful acting and that particular cinematic flair, made up of an admixture of elements such as filmic elan, note-perfect acting and understated scripting, that only the French were capable of, and which no-one has even come close to since.
The plot, on the face of it, is simple. Man shoots other man for unknown reasons and then waits, holed up in a bedsit, for the Police to come at daybreak and seal his fate. He reviews the events that have led to this impasse. As in all the best films, things aren't what they initially appear to be, and the actions, feelings and motivations of the various characters unfold as the film progresses, sometimes quite surprisingly.
Jean Gabin puts in what is arguably his finest performance. Jules Berry is a suitably lubricious and plausible villain, while Arletty is spot-on as the world-weary woman who's been round the block of life a few times too many.
If you're unacquainted with the magic of French films of this period and want to give it a try, you won't go far wrong with this one.
Marcel Carne's 1939 film Le Jour Se Leve (or Daybreak in English) is a classic, claustrophobic drama, and is as bleak as his Les Enfants du Paradis is uplifting. This film, along with Les Enfants, and other Carne productions Le Quai des Brumes, Hotel du Nord and Drole de Drame, fully justify Carne's position as France's leading film-maker of this era (along with Jean Renoir). Le Jour se Leve was scripted by Jacques Prevert, Carne's regular screenwriter, who also penned Les Enfants, Drole de Drame and Le Quai des Brumes.
The film stars the inestimable Jean Gabin as Francois, a foundry worker who falls for flower shop worker Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), only to discover that Francoise is already attracted to theatrical performer Valentin (brilliantly played by Jules Berry). At the same time Francois has also met, and developed a mutual attraction with Valentin's sidekick Clara (played by Arletty), albeit this does not deflect Francois from his true object of desire, Francoise. Following a number of meetings and confrontations between Francois and Valentin, eventually Francois' frustration and anger erupts as he shoots Valentin dead. The police surround Francois in his appartment, eventually driving him to suicide.
The film has elements of film noir and poetic realism, and the flashback narration by Francois is reminiscent of that in the ultimate film noir, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Carne's pacing of the film is slow, but builds an effective and atmospheric tale of the working man, fed up with his lot in his mundane job, yearning for romance and glamour, finally being pushed too far and reaching his breaking point with tragic consequences. The sequences of Gabin chain-smoking in his appartment, then staring into the camera (or into space) before throwing a chair through the mirror into which he cannot bear to look any longer capture his mood of despair perfectly.
Gabin is (as ever) superlative, reprising his stock-in-trade role as the doomed hero, displaying in abundance his trademark acting traits of calm assuredness, confidence, cockiness, frustration, vulnerability and, eventually, anger and pathos - qualities he has repeatedly demonstrated in other classic films such as La Grande Illusion, Pepe Le Moko, Le Quai des Brumes, La Bete Humaine and La Belle Equipe. Arletty is also superb, giving another sterling performance as the spurned lover, and Jules Berry is excellent as Valentin, the taunting competitor lover to Gabin's Francois, and providing a brilliant counterpoint to Gabin during the clmactic scene where Francois is finally driven to commit murder in the name of love.
A near perfect 90-minute film which closes with a magnificant operatic final scene, reminiscent (musically and visually) of the final scene from the opera Tosca.