Poetic realist

By Michael Roberts

"All that I have been able to achieve on screen, all that I have been able to try to express, is what I feel and nothing more than that ."
~ Marcel Carné

Marcel Carné was amongst the greatest of French directors, making his name primarily during the Poetic Realist era of the late 1930s and ‘40s. He was born in Paris in 1906 and lived to the ripe old age of 96, although it can be argued he was assassinated 40 years before by the young blades of Cahiers Du Cinema. Ironically enough Carné had trod the path from film critic to film director 20 years before his Nouvelle Vague 'enemies' and wrote for a monthly journal, Cinémagazine in the late 1920’s, content to wax lyrical about his theories of film, his love for Murnau’s moving camera and his idea that things on the street were more interesting than petty vaudeville entertainments. 

Carné was a serious young insect, a thoughtful and sensitive man who held a modest ambition to work in film as a set or production manager but who soon rose to the rank of assistant director and served his apprenticeship as a filmmaker with classical French directors Rene Clair and Jacques Feyder in the early 1930’s. The French cinema of the early and mid 1930’s was (like most others) a studio bound beast – the recent addition of sound to film meant that already cumbersome equipment was made more difficult to transport around in the less controllable environment of location shooting and Carné would became a master of extracting wonderful compositions and evocative lighting schemes in this studio bound world.

In 1936, Feyder left for England to direct Knight Without Armour and Carné got his chance to direct the Feyder production instead, a doom-laden romance called Jenny. The team for the film included Feyder’s wife, Francoise Rosay, (who had urged her husband to employ Carné) and writer Jacques Prévert, who had scored a critical success with Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange in 1935. This initial, accidental collaboration led to a partnership that would be responsible for several of the best examples of Poetic Realism, the result of Prévert’s poetic prose and mordant wit, and of Carné's exquisite Mise-en-scène. The pair immediately teamed up again for a strange comedy of manners set in London, Drôle de drame, and Carné again used established movie-stars to front the camera, including his Jenny alumni Françoise Rosay and Jean-Louis Barrault. Also in the film were actors who, like Barrault, he would turn to repeatedly in Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet, typical of his canny ability to cast the right actor for the right role.

Their next collaboration, Quai Des Brumes (Port of Shadows) was a high point for the genre they had no idea they had helped create and would subsequently come to define, and it duly won France’s highest film prize in 1939, the Prix Louis-Delluc. Prévert adapted a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan about a legionnaire who is deserting and gets stuck in a port waiting for a boat out. It is one of the greatest romance films of all time and one of the great existentialist films as well, with a fine pitch of fatalism thrown in. The film was not a huge hit at the time of release as the romanticising of a deserter created something of a scandal, it solidified Jean Gabin’s position as France’s pre-eminent screen star and it also made an overnight star out of Michèle Morgan. Whilst Carné will never be accused of being a political filmmaker, Quai Des Brumes is a product of the times inasmuch as it is born out of the failure of the Front Populaire, the left-wing coalition that was elected to power in 1936 but disintegrated in a few short years.  Drôle de drame, like Renoir’s Lange, came out of the collective optimism of the political left (Prévert was a communist and member of Groupe Octobre) but the personal gloom of the collapse of Léon Blum’s government in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of the Fascists in Europe is captured in the mood of Quai Des Brumes.

Prévert was unavailable for Carné’s next film, so he turned to a group of writers including Henri Jensen (who had written Julien Duvivier’s seminal Pepe Le Moko) and Jean Aurenche, to adapt the Eugène Dabit novel, Hôtel du Nord. Carné had gathered around him a number of trusted collaborators by now, key amongst them composer Maurice Jaubert and art director Alexandre Trauner, brilliant artists who contributed much to every film they worked on. Carné’s casting was again peerless, employing the formidable Arletty as a hot-tempered prostitute, Louis Jouvet as her sleazy pimp and Annabella as the suicidal young woman. The film is a masterful balance of poetic fatalism and the everyday, understated observation and Carné beautifully captures the idea that good coexists indeed with evil and that the distance between darkness and light can sometimes be very short and Hôtel du Nord remains a high point in the director’s canon. 

Le Jour se lève saw him reunite with both Jean Gabin and Jacques Prévert to produce a sensational and bleak masterwork that examined a toxic masculinity, of a type that was exaggerated and even more problematic in the post WWI generation. Gabin’s doomed and damaged hero was totally compelling and devastatingly realised by the supreme actor of his generation, and the part seared into the public consciousness as a key image in Poetic Realism. It was so powerful that even Hollywood attempted a version called The Long Night, and Henry Fonda made a decent fist of the Gabin role under the direction of Anatole Litvak.

The war intruded, making it especially dangerous for Carné’s Jewish collaborators to continue to work in the industry and while others fled France under the Nazi occupation, Carné stayed and tried to carry on producing features. He succeeded superbly with the witty, The Devil's Envoys, an allegory that speaks against evil let loose in the world and then underlined his talent with his undisputed masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis, one of the glittering jewels of world cinema. It was no accident that Carné avoided modern subject matter under the Nazi oversight, but as his cinema was primarily emotion driven, the cinema of the heart, it didn’t threaten to undermine the German regime in the way other French filmmakers stood accused of doing. Les Enfants du Paradis put Carné at the top of his craft, just as his peers were all in exile, Renoir and Duvivier in the USA and Feyder in Switzerland.

“The atmosphere and the characters are more important to me than the plot itself. An original story will be worth nothing if the characters are conventional.”
 ~ Marcel Carné 

Carné didn’t enjoy this career highpoint for long as France came out of the war a changed country and the taste for Carné and Prévert’s psychological dramas was at a low ebb, as they found with La Port de La Nuit, dismissed as a carry over from Poetic Realism. The film was excellent but associated with a pre-war genre that France had moved on from, and the rejection was such that the pair abandoned the follow up film, Le Fleur de L’age, and never worked together again and Prévert barely worked in cinema at all outside of a couple of screenplays and a few animated scripts.

“On top of that, I mean honestly I don't like the term “poetic realism” very much. When people tell me that I'm a realist, that doesn't make me very happy; people may be right to tell me so, but then I'm not very proud of myself, because in my opinion I interpreted reality a little bit. Even when I have made realistic films, I have the weakness to believe that it was a personal vision.” ~ Marcel Carné 

Carné soldiered on and it took 4 more years for his next release, La Marie du Port, a solid entry with another Jean Gabin lead, but it failed to set the box-office alight as well. He next produced a film he’d commenced in collaboration with Jean Cocteau some 10 years prior in Juliette, Key of Dreams which failed to find critical favour but nevertheless has much to recommend it. Carné turned to legendary writer Charles Spaak, a key figure in the Poetic Realist era and frequent collaborator to Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir and Jean Grémillon to adapt an Émile Zola story and produced the excellent Thérèse Raquin, starring Simone Signoret, which won him a Best Director Silver Lion award at Venice.

Carné’s personal life intruded into his work life when he cast his young lover Roland Lasaffre to star in his next film, L’Air de Paris, alongside old favourites Gabin and Arletty in the sweaty boxing drama with homo-erotic overtones (at least to some). The film was solid but not stellar (Gabin was fine and won the Venice best Actor award for it) but Carné would soon find he’d be defending his reputation under vicious attacks from a new generation of film critics – young men dissatisfied with ‘a certain tendency’ in French Film, a so-called ‘tradition of quality.’ This maligned tendency pointed out the formula approach to production in rather than the personal manifesto of an artist, specifically the ‘auteur’ director. These critics, who came to include Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacque Rivette and Eric Rohmer – the soon to be Young Turks of the Nouvelle Vague, used their platform at the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma to denounce directors they deemed anathema to their auteurist vision, and Marcel Carné was at the top of hit list.

Meanwhile, Carné was finding it harder to get financing and to continue working, so much so that he directed a comedic musical (in colour no less) - things not associated with him at all, in order to stay ‘current’. The assassins at Cahiers were unimpressed as this was the opposite to pursuing a personal and authentic filmmaking, and soon older directors like Julien Duvivier and Henri-George Clouzot were also decidedly out of favour too. They were all guilty of being captive to the method of ticking off a check list of film production by a formula that valued the safety of successful source material (best selling novels preferably) and fronted by box-office stars. The Auteurist theorists wanted more Robert Bresson’s or Jean-Pierre Melville’s and eventually determined that they would have to make those kinds of films themselves rather than try to convince the old guard to change, if that was even possible.

“But, above all, there is that the cinema, like the other arts, currently suffers from an evil which does not forgive: the lack of imagination. It is not technical innovations that will save the cinema, but the ideas and discoveries of creators.” ~ Marcel Carné (1964)

Carné finally got to play on his own terms again in 1958, just prior to the creative explosion of the Nouvelle Vague with the box-office hit Les Tricheurs (The Cheaters), a fine look at the problem of juvenile delinquency in France. He followed it up in 1960 with Terrain Vague, another youth focused topic (again finding a part for his partner Roland Lasaffre) and enjoyed another commercial but not critical success. After a slight comedy he turned his hand to writing and co-authored the screenplay with Jacques Sigurd for Three Rooms in Manhattan, a romance adapted from a George Simenon story. The film was released in 1965 and recalled the haunting romanticism of Carné’s earlier work, shot by Eugene Schuftan (his cinematographer from Port of Shadows no less) even as Carné remained frozen outside of the now dominant Nouvelle Vague.

Carné directed a third youth themed piece entitled The Young Wolves but finished his career with couple of features that fared better in terms of content and artistry with Law Breakers, the crime drama starring Jacques Brel and The Wonderful Visit, a fantasy about an angel visiting earth, a neat bookend to his The Devil’s Envoy wartime fantasy. He released a documentary in 1977 and continued to aspire to making more films but died unfulfilled in that ambition in 1996 at the age of 90.

Carné, as he got older should have been cherished and venerated by the young French filmmakers, but their tendency for youthful dogma, bombast and controversy both sullied the ageing director’s commercial cachet and denied the critics that chance. It also blinded them to the facts, as any cursory reading of Carné’s output reveals him to be an auteur of the first rank – in many respects he had the same ‘baggage’ as his contemporary Jean Renoir, but none of the reverence which it was obvious the Renoir name attracted. The below quote could indeed have come from Renoir;

I am unable to settle everything “on paper”. I love the unexpectedness of the set too much, all the unpredictable richness that comes from the real presence of beings.” ~ Marcel Carné

So why was it that François Truffaut dismissed Carné as nothing more than Prévert’s visual technician, and yet idolised Renoir to the point their relationship resembled that of a father and son? Maybe Carné’s homosexuality had something to do with it? I hope not. Nonetheless, for all his vitriol against Carné, Truffaut relented somewhat in later years and even said words to the effect that he would trade all of his own feature films to have made something as remarkable as Les Enfants du Paradis.

Marcel Carné was an artist with a coherent personal vision, one who rightly sits at the very top of French cinema when judged on his work alone and not the politics around his work and the later reputational battles. His best films are redolent with a fatalistic romanticism, enriched by characters struggling to feel something that might justify their existence or realise some sublime escape, or to tilt at the mirage of the prospect of happiness. He is a significant existentialist filmmaker in World Cinema and his reputation deserves to be rehabilitated once and for all. If Renoir is the unassailable pinnacle, as I think he is, then Carné is within close reach.




Also recommended;

Therese Raquin

Gates of the Night


For fans only;

Les Tricheurs