Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak)

Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak)
Director: Marcel Carné
Starring: Jean “Studmuffin” Gabin, Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty, Jules Berry

Film noir, as a genre, is most definitely considered an American creation.  French film critics of the 1950s and 1960s noticed that certain American films from the forties and fifties had developed a distinct tone, look, and shared thematic elements, and they coined the phrase “film noir” to describe it.  In spite of the French name, though, they were talking about American films, and most will agree that film noir really started in the early forties.  But I really start to question all of that – that noir is an American cinematic invention, that it started in the early 1940s – when I watch Le Jour se Lève.  I suppose it doesn’t fall as neat and tidily into the film noir category as other classic noirs, but it’s so damn close.  It must have been influential in helping develop the genre.

The film opens as François (Gabin) shoots a man (Berry) in his apartment building, then barricades himself in his room, refusing to open up to the police.  He flashes back to how he wound up in such a situation, starting with meeting pretty Françoise (Laurent), with whom he fell deeply in love.  But Françoise is not as innocent as she looks, and soon we learn of her history with Monsieur Valentin, a dog trainer, circus performer, general con man, and, coincidentally, the man that François shoots.  In between spats of jealousy over Françoise and the lies that Valentin feeds him, François also meets Clara (Arletty), Valentin’s assistant, who knows all Valentin’s tricks and isn’t nearly the picture of innocence that Françoise is.  His life with these two very different women who share him and the dastardly Valentin in common flashes before him and leads him up to the night of the shooting.

Jean Gabin holding a teddy bear... my uterus just skipped a beat...

Although Le Jour se Lève is definitely dark, even nihilistic, Carné is smart and doesn’t take us there right away.  He lets the doom and gloom build slowly, and when we see François’ first flashback, he’s positively beaming with happiness.  To me, this is where the film hooks me.  I buy François and Françoise so implicitly as a couple, and I so adore their early scene of pretend homemaking together, that I become emotionally invested in both their fates.  This scene is so important in the film as it points out with humor but also pathos just how desperately François longs for normality in his life.  Growing up an orphan, he feels a connection to Françoise because she was also raised in an orphanage.  As the two of them potter around her landlord’s house at night while the landlord is out, they play act a fantasy where it is THEIR house, THEIR ironing, THEIR children who left the toys out.  This dream of mundane domesticity is everything to François, and he speaks sincerely of marriage and a future with Françoise, and I’m just putty in his hands.  I’m all in.  I want everything for François.  I have bought into the central relationship and the central character of the film, and everything that happens afterward will be that much sadder because of it.

Um, yes please.

Clara and Françoise are an interesting pair of women to involve François with, as they are so much opposites.  At first glance, Françoise is the girl you take home to your parents, all innocence and sweetness and light, and Clara is the girl you ring up for a booty call because you know she’ll oblige.  What I like about Le Jour se Lève is how it subverts these expectations.  Françoise is not nearly as innocent as she looks (a revelation that eats away at François as he contemplates the fact that his darling Françoise is still in love with her shady ex), and Clara has hidden emotional depth.  Every time François thinks he has everything sorted out, every time he thinks he has a handle on one or perhaps both of these women, something new comes to light and once again he realizes he is wrong.  I like these women.  They are more than caricatures.  As the film hurtles towards its gloomy finale, these two opposites are even revealed to have so much more in common than we ever could have thought.  Rather than resigning them to broad strokes, they have depth.  

You have no idea how much I want to be Arletty in this scene.

Shall I go on my typical “Jean Gabin = sex god” rant?  Sure, why not, it’s my review.  Jesus Christ, but Gabin is MY KIND OF MOVIE STAR.  The male actors I find most attractive definitely share certain traits, and Gabin has them in spades.  First of all, he can act.  If an actor is ridiculously awful, no amount of good looks will sway a damn thing for me.  He’s excellent in Le Jour se Lève at detailing François’ increasing desperation as he falls deeper in love yet is stymied too many times by Valentin and his awful hold over Françoise and Clara.   Gabin has to take François from very cheery guy to someone who, whether he meant to or not, shot a man at point blank range, and he has the range to do it.  Not only is he good at showing François’ emotional journey, but he also has the task of bringing François through the standoff with the cops, a harrowing process indeed.  When you add on to all of this the sort of rugged, everyman quality I *really* like in an actor, I’m hooked.  I don’t like my Hollywood hunks to be prettier than me.  I like some rugged, dirty sex appeal, something less dressed up and more organic.  Let’s put it this way – Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire makes my ovaries explode, while Orlando Bloom does absolutely nothing for me.  Gabin has that same sort of Brando-esque appeal.  I can’t help it – I’m crushing on him hardcore.  He acts, he broods, he swoons, he goes crazy, and (shoutout to Movie Guy Steve) his hair is fantastic.  And yes, I'm using this review to shamelessly post sexy pictures of him.

Jesus effing Christ, slice me off a piece of that.

When you take all these elements and add on the noir-in-training of the film, how could this not be a hit with me?  It really shouldn’t be a secret that this film ends badly; when it opens with François shooting someone, you can just sense it’s all going to cascade downhill at some point.  I love the plodding of the soundtrack, moving, unrelentingly, toward the film’s conclusion.  There are drumbeats, like a funeral dirge, punctuating the soundtrack frequently, as François knows only too well what waits for him.  Carné’s photography transitions from brighter lights in the first half of the film to the significant darkness of the second half as the desperation ratchets up to the brink of no return.  

I wonder, a bit, at this film being made in France in 1939 with WWII breaking out in Europe.  The sense of fatalism, of moving toward a foregone conclusion, of being unable or unwilling to fight any longer, is this what some people in France felt?  It must have colored the filmmaking; how could it not?  I believe wholeheartedly that those American filmmakers who would go on to create the iconic noir of the next decade must have taken a heavy cue from Le Jour se Lève. 

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10.  And one additional note: when I first started watching films from 1001 Movies, this one was unavailable anywhere.  I am very pleased to see that in the years since, it has been given the Criterion treatment (“Essential Art House”) as it deserves to be preserved and seen.  Also, I smell a Jean Gabin movie marathon in my future. 


  1. For me, this one was all about possession--the two men will do anything to possess the women in their lives. Hardly progressive, but certainly compelling. It's pre-noir, and certainly has plenty of noir in it.

    And I love the leather jacket, too. I didn't think people looked that cool pre-1950s.

    Your Jean Gabin marathon should probably include Le Plasir and La Bete Humaine, two Gabin films that have gotten the Criterion treatment but didn't get listed. And I'll see your Jean Gabin marathon and raise you an all-day Barbara Stanwyck film festival.

    1. Possession is a definite theme to this film, and one I didn't think of so much. I guess I read this as Francois' desperation for normality (with Francoise or Clara) slowly driving him crazy - like he's finally figured a way out of his situation, and it requires a woman - but Valentin keeps on mucking things up for him. But having said that, possession is certainly a part of his desire to be "normal," because he's decided he can't be "normal" on his own, he NEEDS one of those two women.

      Jean Gabiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin. I'm still fanning myself.

      Thanks for the recommendation for other Gabin work. I will definitely be making a point to see those.

      Yah, I know you have a thing for Stanwyck. Nice taste - she's just... she's AWESOME. I respect the hell out of her, and she makes anything and everything watchable.

  2. Thank you for the eye candy! Swooooon!!! He's still sexy later in life. Try Renoir's French Can Can or Becker's Touchez pas au Grisbi, both from 1954.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I'll definitely check them out!

      It's nice to know I'm not the only one swooning over the awesome sauce that is Jean Gabin. :D

  3. Given that this film is about 70% Jean Gabin I should have guessed you would love this one. I am totally in on all the film noir stuff. In a sense it is prototype noir and very interesting cinematography. The story however I was not so hooked on. The different parts did not add up for me and I did not connect with Francois. It seems to me he got himself into a lot of unnecessary trouble. Maybe I should see it again.

    1. Fair enough. After all, I'd be lying if I said my love for Gabin biased me towards liking this film, and definitely towards sympathizing with Francois.