Friday, December 6, 2013

Daybreak (1939)

Director: Marcel Carné

A film of the new wave of French style of films known as artistic realism Daybreak, or Le Jour Se Lève in French, stars the famous international actor Jean Gabin in a complicated romantic drama filled with plight and nuances of the uglier side of the world. Directed by Marcel Carné, of Port of Shadows fame, this pictures encompasses the grit and artistic vision of French pictures that American features would lack due to their hands being tied by the Production Code.

Daybreak is a tale of a man contemplating on why he had just committed murder. The picture begins with a shot man stumbling down from the top floor of an apartment building and dying. As the police try to get to the apartment where the man was shot his killer, François (Jean Gabin), locks himself in. A well liked gentlman by the community, François ponders of what put him in this position. The event stems from meeting a young woman, Françoise (Jacqueline Lauret), whom he quickly falls in love with, but discovers is seeing another man. This other man, Valentin (Jules Berry) proves to be a manipulative, older gentleman who takes advantage of women. In spite of Valentin and Françoise, François begins an affair with Valentin’s former lover Clara (Arletty), making Valentin jealous. The two men greatly dislike what each other are doing in their relationships with the women. Valentin confronts François in his apartment with a gun, but in rage François shots Valentin, taking us to where the film began. With François becoming delirious as his world is coming down on him, he commits suicide while outside Françoise yells out that she loves him to no avail while the police teargas the apartment containing the now lifeless body. It is a tragic end all brought on by love.

The picture, simply stated, is very good. It is a bit of a slow story, which for a foreign audience needing to follow by way of subtitles allows for a perfect pace. This love story is complicated, filled jealousy, loathing, and the heartache familiar to how convoluted relationships and love really are. What begins to appear as a love triangle turns into a quarrel that consumes four individuals. We have our tragic hero character in Gabin, his love interest, the manipulative other man Gabin is angry with, and the fourth person, the jaded woman that allows herself to be mixed into this after losing her soul while in love with the other man. Only the jaded woman really comes out, more or less, unscathed, as the men both die and the young lady loses both her lover and the man she has an affair with.

The poetic realism is heightened by the free reigns that European cinema had compared to American movies. Hollywood had a code of ethics that is was pushed to obey. Here in this picture is the idea of affairs, both for fun and for revenge, incest, and murder. It’s a dark world of emotion that our hero goes through. François is a very likable guy. In fact he is very well liked by everybody in his community, which is what surprises them when a man stumbles out of his apartment and dies of a gunshot. This kind of drama would not play in Hollywood. How Hollywood and forgien features differ is clear manifested in one scene where François and Françoise are lying in bed together, a clear violation of the Production Code when a man a woman could not be seen lying in a bed together, even fully clothed with no sexual indication. These types of limits weighed down American cinema. French filmmaking, including that of gifted director Marcel Carné, enjoyed films that reminded them of real life, and this film provides that true to life aspect.

Jean Gabin in all his films is a very good, understated dramatic actor, never overplaying his roles. The only time he goes over the top here is when his character loses it and is over the top. A calm actor with a rather stoic face, similar to Buster Keaton without the comedy, Gabin’s performance goes from being a happy laborer, to jealous boyfriend, to a completely broken man who has nothing else but the idea of taking his own life. His character transforms, almost aging before our eyes even though the actions of the story take place over the course of just a few weeks. Performances like this would make Hollywood studios beg for him to work in America. With the outbreak of World War II, which was literally happening as this film was being produced, Gabin would make his failed attempt in American cinema before returning to his homeland to continue his career.

Le Jour Se Lève would be released in America a year after it initial release in France and be well received by its small audience. Surprisingly the film would be banned in 1940 as French officials saw its depressing story as a demoralizing tale to share with audiences who were desperately in need of uplifting movies during World War II. After the war the film would resurface to acclaim.

In 1947 RKO Pictures would produce an American remake of the picture, entitled The Long Night starring Henry Fonda. In attempt to ensure its success RKO would seek out to buy every known copy of Daybreak and have it destroyed that the American remake would remain the version audiences would remember. The American version changed major points in the story, including the father-daughter relationship idea Valentin attempts to play off to get François to believe.  The remake even altered the dramatic conclusion, having the main character live instead of killing himself. Victim of Hollywood’s cleaner image and want of happier ending would make The Long Night a far less received picture.

With RKO’s destruction of so many prints of Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) it was believed the picture was lost, but it would resurface and thrive as a French classic for generations to come. The feature is hailed as one of the finest films of all time in French cinema. Daybreak to many is a film that is a must for any student of the medium of motion pictures. It remains one of Jean Gabin’s finest movies he had ever starred in.

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