In episode #2, we look at Marcel Carné’s 1939 film Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) and explore how its use of props, narrative space, and structure makes it such a great piece of cinema history.
Hi, my name is Tyler and this is episode 2 of What I Learned From Watching. On today’s episode, we look at the 1939 French film Le Jour Se Leve, also known as Daybreak. I had an opportunity to see it at the Film Forum recently and thought it was fantastic. It was directed by Marcel Carné and stars Jean Gabin as François, a factory worker who has just committed a murder and is hold-up in his apartment as the police surround the building. Le Jour Se Leve is considered one of the most prominent films in France’s “Poetic Realism” movement of the 1930s and it’s hard to miss the fatalistic view it portrays, a major theme of the movement. For one, it starts off with the murder of a main character and then begins to reveal what lead to that point through flashbacks while constantly checking in on our hero as the police close in.
Yet, the connection to fatalism extends beyond the film itself. First, it premiered nearly three months before France and Britain declared war on Germany. Second, the film was heavily censored on its release and outright banned the following year.
And third: after RKO remade the film as The Long Night in 1947, the studio attempted to acquire and destroy all copies of the French original. Carné’s masterpiece was thought to have been lost until the 1950s when, as fate would have it, a few copies resurfaced. There has recently been a 4k restoration with all of the censored scenes intact. The 75th anniversary restoration was just released on Bluray by Studio Canal in Europe and hopefully we will see a US release soon.
So what can we learn?
This movie shows a masterful use of props. A prop isn’t always just a prop. It can be a metaphor, a device for exposition, an extension of a character, or many other things.
Perhaps the most important of the props in the film are François’ cigarettes. He wants to smoke, but runs out of matches, forcing him to light every new cigarette with the end of the cigarette he just finished before it dies out. In essence, the cigarettes are a visualization of the time he has left before he is killed by the police. At the end, he fails to light a new cigarette before the old one dies out signifying his time is up.
We see the structure lend itself quite nicely to this idea. All of François’ possessions are displayed at the beginning of the film and the payoff comes with how they came to be in his possession—most notably, the gun, but we’ll get to structure in a bit.
2. Adding meaning to the narrative space.
A minimalist set highlights the importance of the props as we see in this clip:
The lack of clutter in the space adds meaning to everything that inhabits it. And, along with the props, the narrative space becomes an extension of the character. This room is François’ shell. It is keeping him safe from the dangers lurking and amassing outside.
And real dangers they were: Carné allegedly had real bullets fired during the shoot-out scenes.
3. Flashback structure.
There is something to be said for a film that gives up what would be a major and shocking turn in context (in this case, the murder) and, instead, makes the film about reaching an inevitable conclusion. Another landmark film used this structure just over a decade later—Sunset Boulevard.
The flashback structure works the best when the flashbacks subvert the expectations of how things got to this point. It manages to have us asking what happens next despite knowing where we’ll end up.
This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.