Every time I see a film starring Jean Gabin, I’m amazed anew. I love his acting style, the roles he plays, the directors he works with, and the artistic style of his films. Before yesterday, I’d seen and loved:
- The Grand Illusion (1937)
- La bête humaine (1938)
- Moontide (1942)
- Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954)
When searching for Pepe le Moko (1937) — which I put on my Cinema Shame 2018 list of must-sees) — I found Le jour se lève (1939). And I am so glad I did. The film is a stunner in so many ways, from style and direction to acting, plot, and social message. Given that this is a noir blog, I’m organizing this review by elements of noir style.
Expressionism and the Noir Look
The sets for this film are stupendous. They have an expressionist feel, and it doesn’t surprise me that both the main street, featuring the tall apartment building in which our protagonist François (Gabin) resides, and the side street, on which his beloved Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) lives and works, are sets made especially for the film.
Artfully chosen camera angles (looking down the deep stairwell or through windows) and low key lighting and heavty shadows add to the effect, leading me to call this expressionistic film noir, although some call it poetic realism.
In addition to its style and era of production, there is a very noir quality to the film’s central characters. At firsts they seem heavily typed, but there’s a twist to each. There is the ill-fated everyman (Gabin’s manual laborer François), who turns out to be unfaithful; the femme fatale (Arletty as Clara), who turns out to have a heart; the good girl (Jaqueline Laurent as Françoise), who is not as innocent as she seems*; and an homme fatale (Jules Berry as Valentin), who is as domineering and heartless to the dogs he trains for a stage show and his mistress (Clara) as he is to the much younger women over whom he obsesses.
Classic noir often features complex timelines, especially in the ample use of flashbacks. Most of Le jour se lève is told in flashback, after François has shot and killed Valentin. François locks himself in his room after Valentin stumbles out then tumbles down the stairs to his death. Through multiple dissolves, we follow the path of his mind as he thinks back over his life since meeting Françoise. Interspersed with present moments, including police shooting at his door and through his window, we see the first meeting of the ill-fated lovers, their courtship, the arrival of Valentin and Clara, François’ affair with Clara even as he pursues Françoise in hopes of marriage, and multiple unwanted intrusions from Valentin, includ an emotionally intense scene in which the corrupt Valentin claims (complete with tears) to be Françoise’s estranged father, only wanting the best for her.
As this description shows, it is not only the non-chronological order that makes Le jour se lève noirish. Love, lust, deceit, betrayal, murder: the underside-of-life stuff on which classic noir is built. Moreover, the film is bolder than Code-era American films about sexual experience and deviance, even showing partial nudity. This results in a film whose cynicism and style feel like American moviemaking of the 1940s, while its frankness is closer pre-Code Hollywood.
Ultimately, although made several years earlier than the 1940s Hollywood films that post-war French critics would come to identify as film noir, I’m entirely convinced that the label suits this picture well.
* By the end of the film, we learn that Valentin has sexually seduced Françoise, and the direction and lighting that grace the character work to hide this fact. The character seems as if she doesn’t know she’s had sex, especially in the scene in which she declares her love to François. One way to read this seeming conflict of style of presentation vs. content is to accuse the director of manipulating the viewer, keeping the truth from us as she keeps it from François. The other is to see Françoise as out of touch with reality, as living in a fantasy world. Either way, François is deceived and this leads to his mistrust of the world and desire to end his life.