Le Jour Se Lève (1939)
It’s strange now to consider how controversial Le Jour Se Lève was upon its initial release in France on the eve of the second World War, because the way the murder, which was the element the French government took issue with, is shown in the film wouldn’t skim the surface of what’s showcased in modern PG-13. In fact, the film’s infamous opening, the shot which sets up the rest of the plot (everything else is either a flashback or a flash-forward to this moment) may have been shocking to an audience at the time, and it’s still moving if you watch the film on its own terms; but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit watching the sequence which merged on melodrama.
To paint the picture: there’s an argument from behind the door at the top floor of an apartment building, a shot rings out, and a man slowly stumbles out of the apartment clutching his wounded chest. Just when you think he’ll collapse onto the floor, his facial expression changes from confusion to desperation and he slouches his foot onto the staircase and begins to tumble down the stairs, and then down another flight and then another. Where he stops, a blind man walks in and starts poking him with his cane saying ‘Is anyone there? Someone fell!’
Although melodramatic certainly and perhaps intentionally a bit comically so, the opening leaves a strong impression, making it an effective centrepiece to the drama, which looks to the man behind the gun as its hero, played by Jean Gabin. Gabin, as usual, takes on the role with his fascinating mix of stoic coolness and a little French charm. Gabin was really the hero of the poetic realist movement in French film (a movement to which this film firmly belongs) just before the French New Wave (which would see the more boyish, flighty Jean-Paul Belmondo take the helm before the icy gaze of Alain Delon in the ‘60s). Although it seems to always play second fiddle to the New Wave in terms of the shows I see produced in art house cinemas near where I live, and attention paid online, poetic realist movies like Le Jour Se Lève, or another Gabin classic, Grande Illusion, known for their ‘impressionistic’ style, are films that aren’t afraid to really let their big moments take time to develop, and they seemed to place some heartfelt attention on relationships between characters that weren’t so flip and flam, especially the romantic ones. I’ll always begrudge Godard and Truffaut (although him to a lesser extent) for swapping out the impressionistic soft-gaze lenses and romantic scenery for that kind of quick hodgepodge of cuts and pastes and zigzagging edits that always leave me feeling dizzy and annoyed, but both movements are certainly fascinating to dive into in their own right.
In any case somehow Gabin has always seemed to me to be the most honest of the French leading men. He often played hard-working men stuck in tough situations, which is a bit ironic because his acting always has a real ease to it, like he’s never too concerned or stressed – he wouldn’t consistently knit his brows like the anxious Delon, but nor did he have Belmondo’s holiday smile. Nevertheless, in this film he certainly has reason to stressed – although he doesn’t show it. After killing the man we see in the initial take, he’s trapped in his room at the top of his apartment, as an appalled mob stares in at him through his window from below, kind of like a reverse of Rear Window. Through flashbacks, we learn of his past, his romantic love for his namesake (he’s named François, she’s named Françoise, very poetic realist), and of his ordeal with the conniving man who he murdered (who was, believe it or not, a dog trainer by profession).
The plot is simple, although there are a couple interesting twists and realizations along the way. The simpleness of the plot, however, showcases its theme in a more poetic, straightforward light, in my opinion: it’s a love story with a couple triangles, but its real message is about jealousy, and how a man can be driven to such extremes solely due to feeling the awful type of powerlessness it is to learn that the woman he loves slept with another guy who is a gigantic schmuck – even if it was before they were ever together.
François is a good man with a tough job (he paints things with a ‘sand-gun’ (?!), surviving off milk all day) but he is in love with a woman who, he believes, really sees him. Françoise (female) tells him that she likes him because he has one eye that’s smiling and one eye that’s a bit sad…and he reminds her of her teddy bear that has only one ear. Compliments? Francois seems happy to hear it, and takes the teddy home for himself as memento. For her part, Françoise, the virginal, somewhat infantilized love interest of the film is not nearly as interesting of a character as Clara, the more experienced woman who Francois rebounds with when he sees his true love dabbling off with the dog trainer. There are some wonderful scenes where we see Clara’s jealousy of Françoise, all in subtext, even as she helps Françoise in her madness after hearing that her lover committed murder. And in a way, Clara’s jealousy mimic Francois’ jealousy of the dog-trainer, and they’re the only two characters who seem to think for themselves, so I couldn’t help wonder what the film would’ve been like had they run off together.
When the film finally catches up to the murder itself, there’s a powerful moment where Francois, after learning the dog-trainer slept with Francoise just like dozens of other girls he didn’t care about – pulls out the gun, says ‘well look where it’s got you now’, and shoots – and in response, just after receiving the bullet, the dog-trainer goes ‘…and you?’ (Et toi?).
It sunk in for me then that they had been both driven mad by this girl typically oblivious like the ingenues that era seemed to love; we just happened to be cheering for Gabin/François because he’s a better guy in human terms…but who’s the real villain of the story? The old dog-trainer who collects women as objects or the silly girl who chooses to sleep with him anyway?