Sunday, January 8, 2012

Waiting for a Streetcar in the Rain: Thoughts on Re-seeing Le Jour se lève

Un homme a tué ... Enfermé, assiégé dans une chambre, il évoque les circonstances qui ont fait de lui un meurtrier. (A man has committed murder ... bedeviled, besieged in a room, he recalls the circumstances that made him a murderer.)

Le Jour se lève, called Daybreak in English, was released in France in July 1939. The year before, Hitler's Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria and met no resistance invading and occupying Czechoslovakia. The month following the film's release, the blitzkrieg attacked Poland and the Second World War commenced. When France fell the following year, the Vichy government, anxious to blame everything but its own cowardice for France's demoralising defeat, banned Le Jour se lève, along with Renoir's La Regle du jeu, because its "defeatism" had demoralized the French. After the war, its re-release was hampered when RKO, who sought to remake the film with Henry Fonda (The Long Night-1947), acquired the distribution rights, tried to acquire every existing copy of the film and destroy them. This prompted fears that the film was lost, until it was re-discovered in the 1950s.

The story of the film is deceptively simple: In a provincial city, a blind man walks up flights of stairs when we hear an argument from inside a flat on the top floor. A gun goes off and Valentin (Jules Berry), comes out onto the landing, grabs his abdomen and tumbles down the stairs.(1) The police arrive and learn that François (Jean Gabin) lives in the room on the top floor and that he refuses to come out. The police besiege François' small room, in which he paces, smokes, and remembers the events that led up to his predicament.

He turns on the light, stops to examine a newspaper on the table. He reads aloud, "Ship schedules. Boulogne. the Veendam arrives from New York on the 6th...." Walking past the mirror, shot full of holes by the police, he hears a squeak and notices he's trodden on the teddy bear that his girl Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) had given him - because she said it looked like him. He holds it up beside his face and looks into the mirror to find the resemblance, covering his ear because the bear is missing one of his own. He lies down. Looking at the ceiling, he repeats the words "ship schedules". On the stairs outside his door, the police order him to open up. Ignoring them, he talks to himself. "How would they understand? You just do it and that's it." It's as if he knows the only way out for him.

François remembers how he met Françoise, whose innocence charms him. But he soon learns that Valentin, a trained-dog performer, has a hold on her that he neither likes nor understands. He meets Valentin's assistant, Clara (Arletty), with whom he quickly develops an affair.

So many moments in the film are unforgettable. Jules Berry's clumsy fall down the stairs (the fall certainly wasn't what killed him). Gabin and Jacqueline Laurent's words during their first night together:

She: "It's funny, the two of us here, and everyone else asleep."
He: "Yeah. As if the whole world had died."

The talk between Arletty and Gabin, who seem to know each other without ever having met. Gabin's beautiful confession to Françoise of his lonely life before he met her:

"I took the train one day wearing my new cap and BAM - out the window. And all the rest of it. Work, no work. Is there a job I haven't done? All different, all the same. I was never really happy before, but I was alone and it didn't matter. I had nothing but problems big and small. When I couldn't fight it any more, I just gave in. Things went from bad to worse. But I got used to it. You know, like waiting for a streetcar in the rain. You try to get on, Ding! It's full. Second car, third car - ding ding! You're left standing in the rain, like a sucker."

François' angry words to Valentin just before he shoots him: "I was about to go to bed. I slaved all day and I'm tired. It's simple: I set the alarm, I sleep, the alarm rings and it all starts over again." (2)

The long dissolve of Arletty's face at the end of François' reflections.

For all the meaningless analysis of French "poetic realism", Le Jour se lève is entirely studio-bound. The city square, the factory, the houses backing onto train tracks - they were all a mock up on the Paris Billancourt sound stages.

Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert, Jules Berry, and Arletty stayed in France during the Occupation. Gabin left for Hollywood, which, of course, didn't know what to do with him. Poor Arletty, whose Wehrmacht boyfriend got her in some hot water after the war, said in her defense, "My heart is French but my ass is international."

I recall listening to the BBC World Service in 1976 when Gabin's death was announced. No other French actor of his generation so embodied the soul of 1930s France, its populism and tragic romanticism, in Pépé le moko, La Grande Illusion, Le Quai des brumes, La Bete Humanine, and Le Jour se lève. In only one of those films is Gabin's character alive in the final scene, and he kills himself in three of them.

(1) Berry's beautifully theatrical death is staged almost exactly like Gabin described shooting someone in Le Quai des brumes (1938): "You shoot, and then some guy . . . holds his stomach and makes a face like a kid with a bellyache."
(2) When the alarm goes off in François' room at the end of the film, the time is 6:20.

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