Le jour se lève (1939)

Le jour se lève (1939) is a classic French Proto-Noir romantic murder drama that is considered to be one of the finest examples of the style known as poetic realism.

This French all-time classique tells the story of foundry worker François (Jean Gabin) who shoots and kills a man called Valentin (played by Jules Berry). 

François then locks himself in his apartment and is soon besieged by the police, who fail in an attempt to shoot their way into the room. As the police regroup to decide how to apprehend him, and as a crowd forms outside, François begins to reminisce on how he came to be in this predicament.

Although not made in the United States and pre-dating the film noir movement it is incredible how well Le jour se lève (1939) fits within the film noir canon. For a start, its flashback style is more than suggestive of noir — in fact the flashback itself is done with more consideration and emotion that is normally found in typical American noir.

Poetic realism films might be described as a kind of framed or recreated realism, stylised in so far as they are built to suggest realism, rather than being actually real in that they are documentary or ultra-realistic.

Because of this poetic realist productions tended to be studio-filmed and not offer a socio realist point of view, which might work to show drama as realistically as possible.

Like film noir, poetic realism very often shared a fatalistic view of life — an aspect which we might simply described as grim, rather than optimistic, and offering more depressing stories, as opposed to life-affirming or positive dramas.

Reflections in a dead-end rooming house in Le jour se lève (1939)

Like film noir, the characters of poetic realism are often drawn from the margins of society, sometimes as unemployed members of the working class or as criminals, or as here, a working man, quite in the most hellish of occupations.

These films, again like film noir, often end with disillusionment or death and this can certainly be said of Le jour se lève (1939), which has a bitter tone, as well as a yearning for love that may be realised momentarily, but which will be exposed to be an illusion. 

The term poetic is brought into play because of a heightened aestheticism that made a virtue of  attention the representational aspects of the films. An example of this in Le jour se lève (1939) may very well be the place that Jean Gabin's character works, which is first seen in one of the most gloomy exterior shots every placed on film, an industrial landscape which is no place at all for humans —  complete with a train shunting across it, underneath what is an alien landscape, dominated by the black towers of the foundry where François works.

Within this foundry the scene becomes grimmer yet — and François is seen working in a literal hellscape — he wears the most brutalising hazmat suit, making he and his co-workers seem like aliens from the depths, as they work in blasting hot conditions, spraying massive engine blocks in the most cursed, malevolent and sulphurous workplace committed to celluloid.

Underneath these suits, we soon discover, the men are buoyant, casual, happy and joking, when they are interrupted by their polar opposite, a beautiful woman carrying a bouquet of flowers. 

What is remarkable about Le jour se lève (1939) and many other poetic realist films is how good they are as compared to American cinema, which in some respects and by comparison seems rather stuck in a groove by the late 1930s, hampered by the Production Code perhaps, and less certain of itself, insofar as it was less willing to tell blue-collar stories with any power.

It leads into the most amazing question of all — how could the French have invented film noir before there was any film noir to speak of?

The question is of course one of influence, and films like Le jour se lève (1939) had a direct influence on the birth and growth of film noir, which took up some of these ideas and ran with them through the dark nights of the 1940s, often telling the same type of stories that are told here.

French cinema did create a high proportion of such influential films in the 1930s due to the talented people in the industry who were working at that time. The most popular set designer was Lazare Meerson. 

Composers who worked on these films included Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Joseph Kosma, and Maurice Jaubert. Screenwriters who contributed to many of the films included Charles Spaak and Jacques Prévert.

The movement had a significant impact on later film movements, in particular Italian neorealism and many of the neorealists, most notably Luchino Visconti, worked with poetic realist directors before starting their own careers as film critics and directors, and as well as informing film noir, the influence of poetic realism can be powerfully felt in the much later French New Wave. 

Central to Le jour se lève (1939) however and central to much poetic realism, is the idea of the existential hero — a man — usually a man — who is somehow central to a vision that questions reality and its impact. While often left-leaning and concerned with working class or fringe social elements, poetic realism doe snot blame a social elite or a system for the predicament of the heroes.

Le jour se lève (1939) is a fine example, because the murder is not blamed on François' poor working conditions, or on society at large, and in fact we never see any of the elites, or bosses, or any other type of character, institution or situation that serves to offer an explanation for his unhappiness or indeed, the murder.

Instead, all of this is upon François himself, who stares life in the face, and does so not with a scowl, but with at times a gentle and nostalgic expression. At one point, he shares with his love Françoise an  an oddly futuristic fantasy about them both being the last people left alive on the planet.

This is an incredible vision to find in a French working man's garret in 1939, but it is central to the questions of being which dominate Le jour se lève (1939), and it is nothing if not poetic.

As François reflects — and François reflects a fair amount in Le jour se lève — he looks down out his apartment upon the crowd gathered below. There is a long, long fade which takes much longer than it would in a similar American production, as the flashback winds back to an earlier day when he was leaving for work.

Jean Gabin — la preuve que les Français ont inventé film noir 

This is achieved by having that mob of eager onlookers slowly disappear, leaving an empty square. The compound effect of this slow fade is s to bring something to the fore that was going to become a cornerstone of the noir vision — the existential hero.

These shots of François brooding, staring out of the window and into the past, and looking into the mirror or elsewhere serve to highlight his lonely predicament and emphasise the loneliness of people in general, because each long stare into the mirror is a question, and the longer these shots are held, the deeper the question becomes and the more the existential predicament seems to press home.

Poetic Realism might best be described like film noir itself, as a style of filmmaking rather than a genre. If there could be said to have been a realist genre in filmmaking in Europe on the 1930s, then poetic realism would have to be seen as a subdivision of this genre or style.

he realist drama genre. In the 1940s, under the direction of acclaimed French director Jean Renoir, a cinematic movement emerged that would become immensely popular in the country.

A certain freedom in the production allows for much in Le jour se lève (1939). The Hays Code was at this time already fully in the swing of censoring American films and here there is nudity, implied extramarital sex including one scene in which the couple lies together in bed talking.

Although they are clothed, it is still nothing that at an American film of 1939 could have gotten away with. Add to this, there is even talk about sex and, including women’s desires.

Jean Gabin and Jaqueline Laurent in Le jour se lève (1939)

There is no overt political content however, but there is still a sense of despair and imprisonment that may have caused this film to have been banned by the Vichy government after the French surrendered to Nazi Germany.

Even though Le jour se lève (1939) was not made in America, and was made before the classic film noir period of (let's say roughly!) 1940 to 1960, there are so many film noir elements that it must be classed as noir.

These include its elaborate flashback structure, which show how events led up to this tragic point, its steep overhead camera angles and complex overhead shots involving staircases, its use of mirrors, and its subject of a police raid, which uses tear gas to subdue the doomed, haunted and nostalgic hero. Fundamentally it is also a noir trope to find a character who has committed murder, as the hero, and even the good guy — the one whom we are rooting for.

The crowd or mob in this film noir occupy a special place. Even when there are crowds or mobs in film noir, the hero still tends to be an alienated urban individual, as here. François is very much by himself, and occupies an elevated position, high above the crowd, who can usually not be made out.

Jean Gabin is the full film noir package in Le jour se lève (1939)

The crowd though perform a crucial function, and even though many of them know the hero, they still  struggle to reach out to him, and help him, maybe because they cannot, or maybe because they are not able actors in this universe, simply that mob of humanity which functions not upon the existential rules that guide the poetic-realist hero, but upon the social forces that were becoming increasingly known to artists, psychologists and others after the Great War . 

Crowd scenes were in fact a specialty of director Michel Carné and show up  in Les enfants du paradis  where there are crowds on the street, and in the theatre back stage.

Le jour se lève (1939) veers away from classic film noir, as readily as it anticipates it. While crime is prominent at the beginning of the film, the bulk of the movie in its three reverie flashbacks focus not on crime, but on love, and tell of an elaborate four sided love triangle that we already know is going to end in tragedy.

Jean Gabin in Le jour se lève (1939)

In the end, we do have to turn to the French directors of the 1930s and 1940s if we want to truly discuss female sexuality and desire. It is the male hero François who holds dear the nostalgic and romantic notion of love, and the thought that his true love Francoise had slept with Valentin seems to blacken his memories of the romantic moments they'd shared. 

The very idea then means the death of his dream of love — and here we veer away from film noir into the purest realms of poetic realism —  the existential death of his own soul. In light of this, and as Valentin is taunting him, and because is lying nearby, the murder seems the reasonable existential act. gun was lying there on the table next to him. 

What is however taken forward into film noir is yet obvious, from the location shooting with shadowy exteriors, an ominous musical score, and the suffocating factory, convincing street scenes and  tenements, beautifully put together and all of it aching with a disappointment that would later make up some of the basic brushwork of film noir.

Finally, Le jour se leve (1939) was remade in 1947 as The Long Night, and faithfully too. Anatole Litvak's film is perfectly toned and Henry Fonda plays Gabin's role with a rather vulnerable edge which is appropriate and effective.

Le jour se leve (1939) at Wikipedia

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