The fourth collaboration between director Marcel Carné and poet cum screenwriter Jacques Prévert resulted in what is probably the quintessential example of the French poetic realism of the ’30s: 1939’s exquisite Le jour se lève. Poetic realism, of course, can only loosely be described as a movement. Encompassing such films as Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1939) and Pierre Chenal’s La Rue sans nom (1934), poetic realism was an approach that in its very name embodied a contradiction. After all, realism implies the gritty grandeur of the unrefined. As set forth by realist novelists such as Émile Zola, realism generally focuses on the working class and the tribulations of quotidian existence (this makes Renoir’s La Règle du jeu of 1939 and odd fit within poetic realism).
The qualifier “poetic”, however, implies the kind of aestheticism that was largely anathema to Zola and Flaubert. But this is precisely the power of poetic realism as a filmic approach. The filmed experience, with its framing of tableaux and the artfulness of the performances, calls attention to its constructed nature. Even when dealing with grit, film (at least in the work of these directors) refines the subject matter. In this way, poetic realism does not capitulate to its seeming contradiction; it overcomes it. By centering its aestheticizing focus on the underclass, poetic realism projects onto the screen the very kind of rarefied transcendence that the characters in these films so often hope to experience.
These characters desire release from the wage slavery and baleful conditions under which they suffer. They seek that release in the promise of romantic union. They believe that emotion can expunge the demeaning grime of their lives, that they can be made clean through loving embraces. The poetic part of poetic realism does not strive to obscure the debased situations in which the characters find themselves; rather, it serves to reveal the vision of hope these characters must carry with them at all times merely to survive the crush of their disenfranchised existences.
No film better captures the wonderful contradictions of poetic realism than Carné’s Le Jour se lève. The opening shot reveals a six-story apartment house. A blind man makes his way up the stairs. On the top floor, behind a closed door, an argument is taking place. A shot rings out. A man emerges, grasping his gut, and falls down the steps dead. The remainder of the film takes place primarily in the room from whence the shot came. Here we find François (Jean Gabin). Having just murdered a man, François seems surprisingly calm as he awaits the next move of the police. He refuses to surrender, refuses to open the door. He stays in that ramshackle, claustrophobia-inducing room and waits and thinks and remembers.
Here is the first stroke of the various geniuses behind this film: that godforsaken room. Alexandre Trauner, the production designer, insisted that the apartment should not have movable walls—a typical devise that greatly simplifies the filming process by allowing the filmmaker several “impossible” angles (that is, angles that would not be available in a real apartment) from which to view the action. Trauner’s insistence on immovable walls forces the camera to occupy the limited space with François.
As viewers, we find ourselves holed up with this murderer, at first unaware of why he committed the act, unsympathetic to his plight. We don’t know this man and here we are sequestered in this tiny space, watching him pace the room with unnatural placidity. As we review François’ past and his relationship with his love, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), along with him, we begin to experience that cramped environment as our symbolic closeness to François’s increasing despair. The more we come to know him, the more we want him out of that room, and the more we come to terms with the fact that he can never leave alive. Our proximity to François throughout the film requires that we share in his realization that any hope, any promise of transcendence is illusory.
The next vital ingredient to this film is Prévert’s script. After having shot through the door in order to dispatch the police officers, François says to himself: “Police, how would they understand? You just do it and that’s it.” But of course that is not it by any means. As the remainder of the film’s flashbacks reveal, it took numerous circumstances and bitter encounters to drive François to murder. The magic of Prévert’s line here is its wonderfully rich ambiguity. Is the “you just do it and that’s it” the way François imagines the police will understand the incident or is it the only way François can adequately explain it to himself? Does it instigate the foray into memory or does it foreclose from the very outset any possibility in finding solace or meaning in tracing the steps that led François to his present predicament?
Or, and this is the interpretation that haunts me as I watch the remainder of the film, is François picturing his working-class social standing as that which vitiates the human spirit of any semblance of autonomous agency? Has he come to view all of those decisions that we watch him make in the flashbacks as the external effects of a mechanical process over which he can exert absolutely no control? Without the possibility of human efficacy, hope, transcendence, and love were always already lies. The process of deterioration cares nothing for you and there is no way to step outside of it.
Indeed Fate seems to play an inordinately strong role in François’s life. He meets a girl that immediately captures his affections who was an orphan, just as he was, and shares his name day. On her way to a delivery, she brings flowers into the factory where he works sandblasting large metal mechanical parts. They meet and flirt. Only later do they realize that the harsh conditions of the environment have ruined the flowers. Already Fate seems to portend doom—the severity of their working conditions and social lives will always eradicate their ineffectual attempts at beauty. As it turns out, the relationship with Françoise was impossible from the outset. She is already involved with the older man (a dog trainer named Valentin, played by Jules Berry) that will become François’ victim and the cause of his downfall.
And yet François cannot escape nor resist the allure of Françoise. The shared names tell us this from the start. François needs her because he sees her as the missing part of himself. He had given up trying to make life better for himself and claims that as long as he was alone, he didn’t really care. She changed that. With her, or rather with the hope of her, he wanted things again, sought happiness. He saw promise through her despite the fact that it was evident that she was already compromised. But it was the constant reminder, embodied by old roué Valentin, of her corrupted body and François’s subjugated position in society that tortured François and forced him to realize that he no longer existed. He comes to acknowledge that he had ceased to exist long ago. He was the automaton that just “did it and that’s it.” His love for Françoise was simply the longing to exist again but existence as actual human agents was no longer available to either of them.
The murder was either the result of a mechanism ground into François through years of eking out a petty living or it was the free act of a man already in the abyss. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which is the case. Either way it was the flailing gesture of a man falling into nothingness. The final, utterly cynical, moment of the film pictures the breaking of dawn (that age-old symbol of hope restored) into François’s room as the police dash in to find his dead body. The alarm clock sounds calling the worker to another day of labor and toil. But the worker has escaped.