Director: Marcel Carné
Screenplay: Jacques Viot & Jacques Prévert
Starring: Jean Gabin, Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty, Jules Berry
Producer: Jean-Pierre Frogerais
Running Time: 91 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The best thing about being sent screeners of old classics to review is that it can open your eyes to films which you've not heard of as well as those that have passed you by. My most recent discovery, Le jour se lève (a.k.a. Daybreak), falls into the latter and appears to be fairly unknown or at least unseen by critics and film buffs in general, despite its director Marcel Carné enjoying decades of success with Les Enfants du paradis. Supposedly Le jour se lève was very well received on release and has been considered the equal to, if not better than, Renoir's La Règle du jeu which was released in the same year. You only have to look at Sight and Sound's highly regarded Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time Poll, run every decade, to see how their paths have since veered. In the first poll in 1952, Le jour se lève was placed at joint 7th, higher than La Règle du jeu at joint 10th. As the decades went on though, Renoir's classic jumped to number 3 and has never left the top 4 since. Carné's film, on the other hand, dropped out straight away in the 60's and has never returned. It wasn't even in the top 50 of the 2012 poll. Part of the reason may be because the film was almost lost in the late 1940's, when RKO acquired the rights to the film so that they could remake it and sought to buy up and destroy every copy available. It re-appeared in the 50's though. The critics of Cahiers du cinéma, who would come to make up the French New Wave movement, are known to have dismissed Carné, claiming his writing collaborator Jacques Prévert was the real genius behind his work, so perhaps they were to blame. Whatever the reason, Le jour se lève has become a distant memory in cinema's history books.
Keen to bring the film back to public consciousness are Studio Canal and Ico, who are releasing the film in cinemas in the UK as well as on Blu-Ray and DVD soon after. More importantly perhaps than that, they have restored it to it's original uncut form for the first time. On the film's release, the Vichy Government cut several scenes and the year later even banned it on the grounds it was demoralizing and had contributed to the nation's defeat. There may only be about 2 minutes reinstated, but what better way to celebrate a forgotten classic than by watching it as originally intended.
Le jour se lève begins with a murder in a five-storey guesthouse in a working class area of Paris. We hear a gunshot, see a wounded man tumble out of a room and down the stairs, then we see François (Jean Gabin), gun in hand. He locks himself back in the room and refuses to let the police in, beginning a drawn out siege. François can see that he is doomed, but stays put and, sat on his own in the room, thinks back to the events which led to his violent actions (viewed in beautifully transitioned flashbacks). These revolve around his love for flower girl Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), her love for dog trainer Valentine (Jules Berry) and the inclusion of seductive Clara (Arletty) into the mix who also muddies the waters.
I fell in love with this film within the first few minutes. The opening murder and build up to the siege is handled impeccably. Tense and taught, it's as exciting as any modern thriller. On top of that it's incredibly stylish. It looks like a film noir, before the classic era of the genre really began, even though the film becomes more of a romantic drama as it moves on. The lighting is stunning, with strong shadows used liberally throughout, looking almost painted on they're so beautiful. There are some interesting camera angles and moves which are impressively ahead of their time too. The stairwell in the guesthouse in particular is well utilised with some cool overhead shots and slick crane moves down them. I loved the minimal but effective use of sound too.
Knowing very little about the film, I wasn't expecting the tone to shift towards romance and drama, but these elements are exquisitely handled too. The chemistry between Gabin and Laurent is very natural, especially for the time. There is a lot of suggestively sexual dialogue too which actually adds to the romance rather than veering into sleaze or Carry On style innuendo.
The story never hits as many twists and turns as you may expect from the setup. It's more about François psychologically unraveling how he went so far rather than unveiling a great mystery. Probably because of this, I found the film didn't grip me as much in the mid-section, which is why I didn't quite award my highest rating to the film. I imagine a second viewing might change my mind though, when I know what to expect. Reading about the film afterwards it seems as though the political and historical context opens up various doors into ways of interpreting the film, but my poor knowledge of history and politics closes those doors, which is why I'm avoiding the subjects in my review and again might explain my slightly below perfect score.
The film's finale is fantastic though, bringing back the tension and style of the opening whilst adding an air of melancholy and hopelessness. The final shot itself is absolutely stunning. I can't describe it without spoiling the film, but believe me when I say it's haunting, beautiful and brilliant. Which sums up the whole film really. It deserves to regain its place in the pantheon of cinematic greats and I strongly encourage people to see it, especially now it's available in its full form.
Le jour se lève is in selected cinemas now in the UK and will be released on EST on 20th October and on Blu-Ray and DVD on 27th October, released by Studio Canal and Ico. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality was decent enough – a little soft, but very clean. The audio sounds a little hissy at times, but the recording methods seemed quite primitive anyway, so it's probably as good as it will ever sound.
The main extra feature is a feature length documentary on the film, Last Assault on the Popular Front which talks about how its themes and tone fit in with the impending war. Unfortunately I didn't have time to watch the whole thing so I can't go into too much detail. It seemed very well produced and in-depth though. There's also a 15 minute look at the restoration process as well as a 2 minute collection of the scenes which were cut from previous releases by the Vichy Government to show exactly what was missing. Rather than any of the sexual innuendos, it was the more clearly politically minded scenes which had been removed, as well as a brief shot of nudity.