Some of our most deeply felt experiences cannot be put into words, and we must turn to other forms of expression. Le Jour se Léve (Daybreak, 1939), Marcel Carné’s greatest film, is a truly exquisite exploration of those feelings. During the late 1930s Carné worked with screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and their moody, romantic dramas were said to be examples of “poetic realism”, a film genre that also featured works by Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier. Certainly among the many great films of this genre, Le Jour se Léve and Renoir’s, La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939) were the high points. (Lamentably, remarks in Carné’s autobiography suggest that these two great visualizers of romantic humanism did not get along -- c’est la vie.) Ever since it's release and despite the deplorable condition of available prints since, Le Jour se Léve has been regarded as one of the greatest French films ever made.
It is particularly noteworthy that Carné’s greatest achievement in romantic expressionism was achieved without significant investment in set design. In addition, there are essentially only four characters of any consequence in the entire film, and each of these cast members plays his or her role to perfection. Like the preceding Carné-Prévert collaboration, Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Le Jour se Léve starred Jean Gabin, who had not only become the leading French actor at this time, but was also almost the iconic figure of “poetic realism”. What Gabin was able to project in these films was something similar to what James Dean and the early Marlon Brando offered later in American films: a sensitivity and passion for feelings that was communicated outside the usual theatrical modes of verbal discourse. Somehow we viewers can empathise with Gabin, as we can with Dean, even when others around him in the story do not understand him and cannot share his feelings. We not only understand the Gabin character, we assert that he is perfectly normal, like us – we identify with him, even when, as in Le Jour se Léve, he is driven by his passions to commit murder.
Le Jour se Léve is about love, of course, but more than that, it is about the existential despair that is felt in connection with the usually hopeless quest to open oneself completely to another and achieve a kind of soulful union – the one, true love. The narrative, the sujet, is told as a series of three extended reverie flashbacks that represent the main character’s reflections concerning events that led up to the murder that he has committed. Overall, the plot comprises four sequences in “the present”, which are separated by three separate flashback reveries concerning earlier events.
1. Present. From the top of a high-rise apartment building, a shot rings out, and an exiting figure falls down the stairs and dies. A crowd gathers and police quickly ring the building. From inside the apartment, Francois, fires some warning gunshots to hold the police at bay.
2. Flashback #1. Francois in seen working at his job as a sandblaster in a foundry, a noisy, grimy industrial environment cut off from normal human interaction. A young, pretty girl, Francoise, walks by looking for directions, and despite the overwhelming noise of the factory, they engage in some polite small talk. The delight in discovering the similarity of their names and the fact that they were both raised in orphanages.
Three weeks later at Francoise’s apartment, the two are shown to be in love, particularly Francois, who wishes to progress their relationship further. He asks to stay the night, but Francoise demurely says that she has a prior engagement for the evening. Francois masks his jealously and leaves, but then he surreptitiously follows her when she soon goes out to a cabaret. There he discovers that she is enthralled by middle-aged entertainer, Valentin, who commands his trained dogs to perform tricks. Despite his utterly tasteless performance, Valentin is utterly confident on stage, and Francoise, sitting in the audience up front, enthusiastically appreciates every bit of it. Midway through the act, Valentin’s stage assistant, Clara, walks off the stage and over to the bar, where she meets and strikes up a casual, but flirtatious, conversation with Francois. At the end of his act, Valentin exits the cabaret with Francoise (still oblivious to the presence of Francois), but he returns a few moments later and berates Clara for walking out on his act. Francois, standing next to her, steps forward and tells Valentin to shove off.
3. Present. The besieged apartment room is now subject to a fusillade of police bullets, but Francois barricades the door and holds out.
4. Flashback #2. Clara’s apartment, where Francois is now the paramour of the mature and worldly woman. Though cohabiting, their relationship is casual, with no long-term commitments. Much to their annoyance, Valentin shows up and cajoles Francois into having a private talk about Francoise. In that talk Valentin claims that Francoise is his long-abandoned daughter and that he is worried about her welfare. Shocked by this revelation, Francois angrily swears that he loves Francoise, and that Valentin has no claim on her affairs.
The scene shifts to a flower shop attended to by Francoise, where she is visited by an ardent Francois. He is happy to learn from her that Valentin had lied and is not really her father. After Francois proposes marriage, the two lovers exchange amorous caresses. Francoise gives him a ceramic broach as a keepsake of their mutual, passionate love.
Francois then goes to Clara to break off their relationship. Clara, hiding her hurt, cooly comments how the venal Valentin trained his dogs by torturing them with a red-hot iron. And worse, she says that he has a collection of identical, cheap ceramic broaches, which he gives as souvenirs to each woman that he conquers. Clara shows Francois her own broach from Valentin, and he recognises that it is exactly like the one Francoise had given to him.
5. Present. Francois angrily throws the tainted broach out the window and then screams down to the crowd of onlookers. Francoise, in anguish among that crowd, faints and is taken to back Clara’s apartment.
6. Flashback #3. Valentin comes to Francois’s room and starts putting on another phony performance, showing off a gun he had intended to use on Francois. But instead he starts taunting Francois about how he had seduced Francoise. Enraged, Francois grabs the gun and shoots Valentin, bringing the action to the film’s starting point.
7. Present. At Clara’s apartment, Clara is trying to comfort the still delirious Francoise, but both women are in tears. Meanwhile Francois awaits his inevitable fate as the police close in with tear gas.
The performances of each of the four principal cast members is superb. Jean Gabin was never better than in this role of Francois. He is the perfect mixture of brooding toughness mixed with romantic sensitivity. Jules Berry, a distinguished character actor who had earlier played brilliantly in Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), is perfect as the role-playing Valentin, who manipulates the civilized customs of our culture in order to grab what he can and avoid responsibility. This overt exploitation of culture is foreign and infuriating to the working-class Francois. Arletty, as Clara, is a sympathetic observer to the tragedy who is unable to prevent its fatal denouement. Jacqueline Laurent, who was eighteen at the time of the film shooting, is also just right as the guileless Francoise. Each of these players is able to express the crucial interpersonal overtones that make the film a special experience.
In Flashback #1, Francois is presented as someone with whom most men can identify: genial but reserved. He doesn’t put on a show for others, but wishes to retain an authentic bearing that is true to himself. By maintaining his balance, he retains his “cool”, and he avoids showing any jealous concerns that may temporarily upset him. His efforts to maintain his authenticity are sharply contrasted by Valentin, who is most self-evidently a phony in every way. In his looks, manners, and actions, Valentin is the essence of inauthenticity: a duplicitous worm who unashamedly slips from one slimy mendacious role to the next without batting an eye. Though he is internally infuriated that Francoise, the embodiment of innocence, is so easily fooled by Valentin’s cheap tricks, Francois tries not to show his feelings of jealousy to her.
In Flashback #2, which is the key sequence in the film, the romantic relationship between Francois and Francoise reaches its culmination. In it, they swear their true love, their authentic love. The amorous scene in the flower shop shows them building their own special world of tenderness and affection.
For Francois, his relationship with Clara was sensual, but it was not the true union of souls that he longs for. Francois and Clara have been too cool, too reserved, too adult, to let themselves go very deep into an interpersonal union -- although there are indications that Clara (in a subtly resonating performance by Arletty) is masking her feelings and is actually in love with Francois. We could say then that the affair between Clara and Francois, though it passes for a love affair in our society, is not an authentic union of souls. Similarly, whatever the relationship was between Francoise and Valentin, it, too, was undoubtedly inauthentic, even for the sincere Francoise – it was merely an inauthentic dabbling in romantic fantasy that had been conjured up by a lecherous shapeshifter.
In the end, Francois could not abide with the idea that Francoise had slept with Valentin. The mere thought of it tainted and cheapened his memories of the romantic moments they had shared. These anguished thoughts probably implied to him that his opening up of his heart to her had perhaps been no more meaningful to her than those cheap "magic tricks" of that elderly and disgusting con man. To contemplate that idea meant the death of his dream of love (and hence the existential death of his own soul), and he could not bear it – especially when Valentin was standing there taunting him, and the gun was lying there on the table next to him. But Francoise, crying out in Clara’s bed at the end and delirious with grief, was different. For the innocent Francoise, the authentic commitment had reached totality. Though Francois’s affair with Clara had worried her and made her hesitant, she forgives him. She says it was not his fault, that she knows that he really loves her, and that she really loves him.