Film: Le Jour se Leve (Daybreak)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Sometimes, you just know what’s going to happen. Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se Leve (Daybreak) is one of those movies. You know the basic plot within the first couple of minutes, and you know from this point on that you’re not going to have a happy ending. There’s simply no way that a happy ending is possible with this one.
We start with a murder. A man named Valentin (Jules Berry) is shot, and he stumbles out of an apartment and takes a tumble down the stairs. The body is discovered and the police are summoned to the apartment of Francois (Jean Gabin), a factory worker. But Francois has barricaded himself into the apartment and will not open the door. In fact, he takes a couple of potshots at the police, who run for assistance. In the meantime, Francois tries to remember what brought him to this particular state.
Naturally, what brings him here is a woman, or rather a pair of women. The first is Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), who works at a florist. They meet when Francoise is attempting to deliver flowers to the factory in which Francois works. The two click immediately because of the similarities of their names (the “e” on the end makes it feminine) and the fact that both were raised in an orphanage. Francois would like to take the relationship further, but Francoise says she can’t.
What Francois discovers is that Francoise has a relationship with Valentin, who is a dog trainer and performs frequently on stage. His assistant, Clara (Arletty) has chosen this night to make a clean break with Valentin, who promises the moon and never delivers. In their conversation, Francois realizes that Valentin has something of a hold on Francoise, but he does not confront her. Instead, he starts a relationship with Clara, almost to spite Valentin and to get back at Francoise.
And so the two men battle over the two women. Both Francois and Valentin want both women, and neither will budge. Valentin spins a tale about being Francoise’s father, a tale that proves to be a lie and further shows the underhanded nature of his character. Eventually, Francois realizes that he truly wants to be with Francoise, and will do anything to protect her, hence the opening few minutes of the film.
Throughout all this, we frequently flash forward to the present and Francois barricaded into his room. A horde of police show up and take positions both inside the apartment building and outside on the roofs of the buildings nearby. These police aren’t too keen on bringing in Francois alive based on the vast number of bullets they fire into his room.
And really, the ending here should be pretty obvious. With the actions of the police established fairly early into the film, it’s evident that no one aside from Clara and Francoise are too concerned about bringing this criminal to justice in court. Aside from an unbelievable deus ex machina, there’s no way that Francois is coming out with both his life and his freedom intact.
For all that it purports to be about love, Le Jour se Leve is more about possession than anything else. Both men are willing to kill to possess the two women, and are willing to throw away their lives and futures to get what they want. While Francois is the one who actually pulls the trigger, Valentin shows up at the apartment for the confrontation with a gun and ready to kill. So the question to me becomes one of whether or not the men really love the women—Francoise in particular—or simply want to conquer someone else for possession rights. The film would have us believe that Valentin’s love is more possession while Francois’s love is more pure. However, Francois’s actions with Clara seem to belie that. From what I see, both men are equally guilty.
This is not a happy experience. Le Jour se Leve is right in the heart of the French Poetic Realism movement featuring proletarian protagonists, film noir-style lighting and sets, and ultimately downbeat endings. If that comes as a spoiler, it shouldn’t. As I’ve been saying, the downbeat is pretty obvious from the moment those first shots ring out—no one is walking out of this one with a smile except perhaps for the police.
Le Jour se Leve is stylish and smart, and plays like a real drama for the most part. The biggest problem for me to overcome in terms of verisimilitude is the actions of the police, who seriously pump about 50 rounds into Francois’s apartment in an effort to end the siege. Maybe this is how the French police acted in the pre-war years, but it’s the sort of action that ends in a class action suit, suspensions, and paperwork headaches for the police force. But for this, the value here is how much Carne reflects real life, or at least potential real life.
Why to watch Le Jour se Leve: A film that is a match for Carne’s later Les Enfants du Paradis.
Why not to watch: The ending is a foregone conclusion.