Laura Morgan writes about a proto-noir love story with a political subtext, on the 75th anniversary of its release.
Le Jour se Lève, newly restored this month in a hitherto-unseen uncut version by Studio Canal, was the first French film to construct its story around a sequence of flashbacks. This is a fact you will learn from any of the numerous articles written about the film in the seventy-five years since its first release. More interesting, though, is how it echoes and foreshadows the fractures and stresses of French society in 1939, the year it was made.
On the surface it’s a simple enough story of le crime passionel. Factory worker François (Jean Gabin) meets florist Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) and they begin a chaste romance. Neither has much in the way of material wealth, but they have dreams and they have each other. Trouble rears its head in the shape of the dashing but villainous Valentin (Jules Berry), a womanising dog-trainer (but of course) with whom Françoise has a history. François begins a less-than-chaste romance with Valentin’s former assistant and lover Clara (Arletty) and these four central characters tread a weary and a wary dance around one another, circling inwards to inevitable tragedy (I’m being coy about the detail, which is entirely unnecessary since, being told in flashback, the film shows us the finale before we learn the backstory, but I’d rather you saw it fresh).
It’s a beautifully woven tale and the shabby Parisian settings are perfection, as are the four lead performances. Gabin, in particular, realises François’ journey from affable everyman to desperate criminal with a sympathy that makes us feel for him even in his darkest moments, and the twists and turns of his increasingly complicated relationships with Françoise, Clara and Valentin are utterly and heartbreakingly convincing. François is a man living on the edges of both society and sanity, and it takes only the gentlest of nudges to break his connection with both. When he commits a violent crime he is driven by passion, but also by hopelessness. His is already a life of hard labour: what has he to lose?
Le Jour se Lève is a meticulously-made piece of poetic realism: the characters struggle with heartbreak, with betrayal, with deceit and with poverty, and it’s this last aspect that hints at a wider recognition of what was happening in France at the time the film was made. The leftist Popular Front movement, which had introduced labour laws and other measures to protect the rights of workers, had collapsed in 1938 and France was entering its darkest period of modern times. Certain scenes had to be cut from the film before it could be released, and the names of two Jewish cast members were removed from the credits on the grounds that they might be inflammatory. These were difficult days to be doing anything in France, and that included film-making. In 1940 the Vichy government banned Le Jour se Lève altogether on the grounds that it was demoralising, and it’s true that despite moments of light, it’s a gruelling film in many ways, telling the stories of characters doomed from the start.
(An aside: in 1947 RKO remade Le Jour se Lève as The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, Barbara Del Geddes and Ann Dvorak, and tried to recall and destroy all copies of the original film, for reasons which aren’t fully explained, as far as I’ve been able to tell. I haven’t seen the remake, but I have read that the ending was changed so as to make it less dark. I’m not sure whether that would have rendered the film less demoralising or just less good, but either way we should all be very glad that RKO’s inexplicable mission of destruction was foiled.)
In addition to restoring the censored scenes, the new DVD and Blu-ray release features a documentary which gives much more of the social, political and historical context in which the film was made, which I have only touched on here. It includes archive footage and interviews and is well worth watching in its own right.
Le Jour se Lève is rightly considered one of the best French films of all time, and should you get the chance to see it on the big screen you must certainly do so. Otherwise, thanks are due to Studio Canal for giving us all the chance to see the fully restored 4K version.
Le Jour se Lève has a limited theatrical release from tomorrow. The Blu-ray and DVD will be released in late October.