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Program 11 | Le Jour se lève

Sunday, June 5, 2022, 1:30 p.m., Dryden Theatre

Le Jour se lève [Daybreak] (France 1939)

Director: Marcel Carné
Scenario: Jacques Viot
Adaptation and dialogue: Jacques Prévert
Cinematography: André Bac, Philippe Agostini, Albert Viguier, Curt Courant
Art director: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Production company: Productions Sigma
Cast: Jean Gabin, Jacqueline Laurent, Jules Berry, Arletty, Mady Berry, René Génin, Arthur Devère, René Bergeron, Bernard Blier, Marcel Pérès, Germaine Lix, Gabrielle Fontan, Jacques Baumer

Sound, b/w, 89 mins.
French language, electronic English subtitles

Print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris

With Le Jour se lève, director Marcel Carné lowered the curtain on the golden age of French cinema. Released three months before the Nazi invasion of Poland, and one year before the fall of France, this tightly wound, suspenseful tragedy mirrored the encroaching dread of an entire nation.

Wanted for the absurd slaying of a romantic rival (Jules Berry), gruff foundry worker François (an ideally cast Jean Gabin) is barricaded in his tiny attic rooms, enduring intensifying raids by the police. In the working-class square below, ghostly bystanders are enveloped in an anxious fog. As his final cigarette burns, François remembers the moments that led him to this grim end, how love for the seemingly virginal Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) and a careless affair with showgirl Clara (Arletty) led to a senseless murder that was not so much an act of revenge as resignation to an inevitable fate. From his balcony window, François proclaims his woes, the collective despair of all of France.

An exemplar of French Poetic Realism, Carné’s film combines impressionistic, highly subjective elements with realistic details. The cramped garret set was specially constructed to fit entirely within a single constrictive frame, an effective visual analog to François’s sense of entrapment and desperation. Meanwhile Carné insisted on using real bullets for the assault sequence, the camera just inches away from real danger, and the resulting debris and broken glass were left undisturbed throughout the rest of the shoot. Scenarist Jacques Viot’s novel flashback structure was fully realized with story and dialogue by Carné’s longtime collaborator Jacques Prévert. Composer Maurice Jaubert’s final score before his death in the war trades sentimentality for taut, creeping silences. Initially lambasted by fascist critics and banned by French Prime Minister Édouard Dadalier's government in 1939, Le Jour se lève would require the championing efforts of legendary film theorist André Bazin to see a new dawn as a widely acknowledged masterpiece.

This print has posed a particular challenge for projection. The high shrinkage level of 1.15% reflects an overall brittleness, especially at the film’s edges, where nearly every frame had cracked or torn perforations. All have been painstakingly repaired by our team of preservationists, however, and seeing how the print's exquisite silvery details sparkle amidst the sullen grays, their efforts have been well worthwhile. —Patrick Tiernan