As French classic ‘Le Jour Se Lève’ celebrates its 75th Anniversary with a high definition re-release, Steven McFeat speaks to film critic and Professor of Film Studies at London’s King’s College, Ginette Vincendeau about the film’s colourful history and the future of French cinema
‘A man has committed murder, locked, trapped in a room, he recalls how he became a murderer.’
Really grabs your attention doesn’t it? So many unanswered questions; who is this man? Who is the victim? How did he come to be in such an unthinkable situation? ‘Le Jour Se Lève’ is a film which may not be very well known this side of the channel, however our French counterparts regard this film in the same vein that one regards ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Citizen Kane’. The film is, simply put, a classic. Once again proving that culture transcends language and borders, the film is lavishly returned to our screens in this 75th Anniversary re-release. With special features detailing the history of the film and the restoration process, this is not to be missed. Beautifully restored to 4K resolution, the film practically pops on the screen. ‘Le Jour Se Lève’ recounts the tragic romance of François (Jean Gabin) as he finds himself trapped in his apartment by the police after shooting a man. Innovative at the time for its use of flashback as a narrative device, the film is a masterpiece of French romantic cinema. Stylish, sleek and effortlessly capturing the essence of a classic film-noir, the film not only boasts dramatic images and beautifully written dialogue (thanks to French poet Jacques Prévert), but masterful performances from the leads, François and Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent). In the eyes of many, the history of the film further adds to the allure and attraction of ‘Le Jour Se Lève’.
‘The film was released in the summer of 1939 and was actually very successful for a short time, due to the fact that the star, Jean Gabin (François) and the director, Marcel Carné, were very well known in France.’, says critic Ginette Vincendeau. ‘However, this was ultimately a short lived success as obviously in September of that year, war came to the country. What happens next is very interesting as the Vichy government banned the film and ordered the removal of certain scenes.’ It was this which made the film such a target for re-release. This new anniversary edition restores these scenes in order to create the same cinematic experience as the time of the film’s original release. The added scenes ‘are quite short and overall they don’t change the overall meaning of the film however the scenes add more thematically’. It must be remembered that this restoration is the first time since the film’s original 1939 release that the film can be viewed as the director originally intended. However, Ginette points out an extremely important element of this restoration; ‘Outside of the scenes added, this restoration now boasts a full list of credits. As well as the removal of certain scenes, the Vichy government demanded the removal of two crew members from the credits. Alexandre Trauner (set designer) and Curt Courant (director of photography) were both absent from the credits as both were Jewish’. Indeed, the film’s colourful and controversial history is not exaggerated.
It is obvious that the film is a classic. Personally, I am often slightly cynical when it comes to classic cinema; the universal praise that these films attract often can be quite daunting. Surely one critic must dislike these films? I can now happily count myself those who have lined up to laud this film. The film opens with shooting and the discovery of the body by a blind man. The police come to confront the shooter, who attempts to shoot the officers through the door. As the people on the floors below begin to speculate on the motives behind the shooting, François recalls his tragic love story and the events that led him to murder. First of all, it must be said that the film looks simply stunning in high definition. Curt Courant’s cinematography, coupled with the dramatic lighting and film noir techniques employed by Carné make the film a spectacle to behold. This beauty is aided greatly by the set designs of Alexandre Trauner. It is a relief that the work of Courant and Trauner is being recognised at last. The leads are masterful; Gabin gives a wonderful performance as the despairing François whilst the chemistry between the central lovers is heart-warming. Whenever the couple are on screen together you will find yourself inexplicably grinning with delight. Speaking of delights, Clara (Arletty) provides comic relief to an otherwise heavy film and she steals every scene. It is easy to see why the film continues to draw interest; ‘It is a masterpiece. The film is absolutely brilliant in a number of ways; the performances are all brilliant, the film is stunning to look at, the dialogue is absolutely beautiful, the story is very tragic and romantic at the same time and it is simply a visually magnificent film.’
However, in spite of the benefits of this restoration, one wonders if some things are best left untouched. As seen from the addition of CGI to the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, some restorations can backfire spectacularly. Thankfully, ‘Le Jour Se Lève’ has managed to avoid this fate. The question still remains however, should certain classics remain untampered with? ‘If the changes are a travesty to what the original film was then of course’, claims Vincendeau. ‘Nowadays, there is a tendency to add colour to black and white films and in my opinion, this should never be done. However, having said that, in this case the film is being brought back to its original form. The people who saw this film in 1939 saw it with full credits, with the added scenes, so this restoration returns the film to what was originally intended by the director. In this case, the restoration is completely justified.’
The love story of the film is beautiful, the chemistry is palpable between the two actors due to Jacques Prévert’s screenplay. French it seems truly is the language of love. The cinema of France is world-renowned for sweeping romance and drama. Never has this been more evident than in recent years, with films such as Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’, ‘Rust and Bone’ and ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ garnering praise not just in France, but all over the world; and not just from the critics, but also from the movie-going public. Are 21st Century, CGI loving, Hollywood-blockbuster obsessed audiences ready to embrace classic French romance again? A renaissance of romance, perhaps?
‘Yes, on the one hand there will always be popular movies, comedies and so on, that don’t travel and remain firmly rooted in France, and if they do travel, they’re often not very successful. On the other hand, to be successful nowadays you cannot remain within your borders and there’s a sort of globalisation of French cinema in that sense. It makes sense that these films travel through film festivals so it is not so much a revival but an understanding that in order to be successful, a film needs to be more transnational, and because the French film industry is relatively healthy, it does attract film makers from other countries.’
So in short, no. French cinema has simply acknowledged that the film industry is on a global scale. Ginette Vincendeau often writes film reviews for Sight and Sound magazine and has appeared on several radio programmes discussing French cinema. She gives this advice to anyone hoping for a future in film critique; ‘I believe it’s necessary to know film history and reach outside the mainstream and look at a wider variety of films. Also, look back in time; I’m often struck by the quality of past films and I believe one understands contemporary cinema better with a knowledge of the history of cinema. Value diversity and don’t be confined within set ideas of what films are good or bad. What is wonderful is that there is such a wide variety of films out there to be discovered and appreciated. In order to appreciate good films, you also have to see some bad ones.’
‘Le Jour Se Lève’ is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 27th October.