In some regards, film noir was a genre that came full circle, from the darkly brooding French films that inspired American tales of ill-fated, morally corrupt characters and back again to the French who coined the very term “film noir” and celebrated its impact as a genre. Late 1930s French cinema saw an influx of films whose pessimistic themes earned them the name “poetic realism.” From directors such as Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné, and Jean Renoir came films that sought to depict life in all its gritty realism and characters who lived on the margins of society – the working class and even criminals. One of the most celebrated films of the poetic realism movement is Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939). The third in a trilogy of fatalistic dramas, Le jour se lève is less a story about crime and more of the doomed love triangle that ruins a humble working man’s life. A deeply claustrophobic film, its emphasis on disillusionment and imprisonment within society are clear precursors to classic film noir.
Defeatist from the start, the film begins as factory worker François (Jean Gabin) shoots the manipulative showman, Valentin (Jules Berry), and finds himself confined to his cramped one bedroom apartment fending off onslaughts from the police on all sides. Through flashbacks, his story begins to take shape. François had met and become involved with a very naïve flower shop girl named Françoise. The two have so much in common, down to the fact that they are both orphans. Their relationship, although chaste, is perfectly idyllic until François follows Françoise to a performing dog act and meets the ringmaster, Valentin, and his disgruntled assistant, Clara (Arletty). In yet another flashback, it becomes abundantly clear that both Valentin and François are involved with Clara and Françoise, and this fact threatens to ruin François and Françoise’s happiness. Having shot Valentin out of jealousy and love for Françoise, François only bides his time – reliving old memories and becoming progressively more disenchanted with life – until the police inevitably break their way into his apartment.
François is an unflinching example of a doomed character. From the first moment we see him, he is trapped in his apartment, unable to go outside for fear of being arrested. What should be a place of refuge is thus transformed into a prison and a deathtrap. Granted, his predicament is brought on by his own actions, but it is clear that this caged life is merely an extension of his station in society. In scenes where François works in the foundry, Carné provides a convincing illustration of the life of the working class. Working through the constant noise of sandblasters, no communication is allowed and all individuality is removed. François is thus already isolated from society, a forgotten member whose plight is best ignored by the masses. Like Françoise’s tattered teddy bear, he sees the world through one happy eye and one sad, seemingly always ready to erupt in anger and violence yet capable of such romantic scenes as those he shares with Françoise.
No image is more representative of François’s isolation that that of his apartment building. Whereas most film noir heroes are outcasts, Carné’s François is literally separated from all other people. As in other Carné films, the sets and decors designed by Alexandre Trauner are essential to Le jour se lève. From the very opening shot, Carné tells us in no uncertain terms that François is truly isolated in his five story apartment building that dominates the rest of the seeable town. Interior shots of this boarding house show a maze-like confusion of stairs. François’s room is fittingly on the very last floor, squeezed into a corner of the building. Within his cramped four walls, François is depicted as a man trapped in an inescapable cell. Constructed without moving walls, this set made it extremely difficult to film, but the result is a painfully claustrophobic environment. Bullet-riddled windows are the tortured François’s only view to the outside world, and his cigarettes’ dwindling numbers only count down to his inevitable death. Carné expertly juxtaposes this with the bourgeoning crowds in the street calling for a fair trial for François (not that he hears this outpouring of support). François is inexorably separated from the streets, dehumanized by his very location away of the huddled masses. As the crowds shout his name, François believes he is being hounded and responds in anger, “François, François, there are too many Françoises…leave me alone, leave me in peace!”
Arguably, François has been doomed from the very beginning of his life, by virtue of his position in society. His unfortunate end is the result of a combination of this dismal fate and his own human failings. In its unrelenting pessimism, dark chiaroscuro, and commentary on human weakness, Le jour se lève perfectly captures the ethos of film noir. The very story of a doomed man trapped – either physically or mentally – became a template for all noir that followed. Carné’s stylistic choices also precede many of the techniques characteristic of film noir narratives. The elaborate flashback structure was groundbreaking for its time and would influence noirs from Out of the Past to Sunset Boulevard. Mirror shots –the choice method of illustrating conflicted protagonists –also featured prominently in later noir.
Of Carné’s poetic realism films, Le jour se lève is the most well-known and most uncompromising depiction of the unsettling cynicism in France during the 1930s. Their disillusionment with government and fears about the inevitable war in Europe mirrors the state of mind that prevailed in America in the 1940s. Hopelessness defines the characters in Le jour se lève who can’t help but see a disappointing past and a meaningless future. The ultimate irony in Le jour se lève sees François’s alarm clock ring to announce the beginning of another unbearable day at the foundry immediately after he shoots himself. François stands as a doomed Everyman literally incapable of escaping his fate and a model for all noir anti-heroes to come.