There’s bleak and then there’s Le Jour Se Lève (1939). To celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary, this week sees the release of an immaculate 4K restoration along with what the Independent Cinema Office are calling “new previously censored scenes that will be seen by audiences for the very first time.” Easily director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert’s most accomplished film together, Le Jour Se Lève is packed to the gills with actors who embodied both cinema and Frenchness that would hold until the iconography changed when the Nouvelle Vague stormed the barricades in the late fifties. This bastion of poetic realism stands as an entry point for French cinema that spread across to Britain and beyond.
Jean Gabin stars as the proletariat François, holed up in a claustrophobic flat. Over the course of a long night he reflects on his oppressive circumstances – a love affair with young florist Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent); the knowledge that she is under the damaging spell of the sinister Valentin (Jules Berry); and a fling with Clara (Arletty), Valentin’s assistant – that have led him, inexorably, to murder. Unusual for the time, the film features a heavy flashback structure that went on to influence Orson Welles, John Huston and Howard Hawks. It also reached out to young French directors such as Jacques Becker, Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville. It was hated by the Vichy regime, who banned it in 1940 on the grounds that it was demoralising and had contributed to France’s crushing occupation in the Second World War.
As François, Gabin is able to emote without uttering a word, to discover and transfer a sensitivity and passion for feelings that he communicates outside the usual acting techniques of the time. He is Dean, Clift and Brando before all of them, a fact that is often overlooked when acting revolutions are talked up. One of the key elements of Carné’s Le Jour Se Lève is its perverse joy in not explaining anything, or more interestingly how little we are told about the motivations of François. The murder he commits is a reaction against ‘talk’ – the folly of a deluded masculinity that always ends badly for someone. There’s no decision, only an instant of action that leaves François alone in a room apart from his guilt and shame, warping his existential threat towards a dreamlike reverie. Our man will be defined by mistakes which he will play over and again as he waits for his fate to be revealed to him. The final shot is a killer: a slow fade out on François, no parting words: half Antoine Roquentin and half Rodion Raskolnikov.