Of all the memorable films starring French icon Jean Gabin, including "Grand Illusion," "Pepe le Moko" and "La Bete Humaine," none has been harder to see in its original version, or more richly rewards a viewing today, than Marcel Carne's melancholy masterpiece of poetic realism, 1939's "Le Jour Se Leve."
"I saw it 17 times in one month," reported Claude Sautet, no mean director himself. "And four times in one day, each time leaving the cinema dazzled and engulfed by an inexplicable sense of pain and pleasure."
An unapologetically adult classic of romantic fatalism with a level of sophisticated insight into personality and relationships we may not be expecting, "Le Jour Se Leve" is an exploration of the question of who we love and why and how we love them that is surprisingly fresh and involving.
It doesn't hurt to have an exceptional cast, which not only features Gabin in one of his signature roles but also includes the masterful Jules Berry as his nemesis and the beautiful Jacqueline Laurent and Arletty as the women in both their lives.
It also helps, to put it mildly, to have the team of director Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert, who were to star Arletty in their "Children of Paradise" half a dozen years later, working together at what many French critics consider their creative peak.
"Le Jour Se Leve" had the bad luck to be released just prior to the start of World War II, and once it fell under the censorious hand of the Vichy regime, numerous changes were made, including cutting a brief moment of Arletty unclothed in the shower.
All have been reinstated, and the new 4K digital restoration also allows for a new admiration of Curt Courant's cinematography with its moody look at the somber landscape of a mid-sized industrial town, as well as the great Alexandre Trauner's fine production design.
As written by Prevert in collaboration with Jacques Viot, "Le Jour Se Leve" (which translates as "Daybreak") opens with huge type filling the screen and proclaiming, "A man has killed. Trapped in a room he recalls how he became a murderer."
The man is Gabin's Francois, who lives in a small room in a six-story apartment house and whose murder of another man opens the film. The police come to investigate, but Francois, consumed by the enormity of what he's done, shoots at them too because he just wants to be left alone to think.
"What would they understand, nothing," he mutters to himself. "Suddenly you do it and it's done."
Dressed in modern-looking black pants and shirt, smoking endless cigarettes and pacing up and down his tiny space as police reinforcements surround the building, Francois is Gabin at his most effective, playing a soulful working-class regular guy, both tough and tender, with the casual ease before the camera that was his trademark.
"Le Jour Se Leve" alternates between scenes in the present and a series of flashbacks that show how circumstances and emotions placed Francois in his current despairing situation.
The flashbacks begin at a sandblasting factory where Francois, encased in hazmat-type protective gear, works. He looks up one day and sees a vision of beauty and purity: It's Francoise (Laurent), a young woman who works at a florist's shop and has lost her way with a delivery.
The two chat, discover they have a lot in common besides their names, and the next flashback, three weeks later, has Francois courting her in earnest, visiting her one night in the small house where she lives and works as a servant and making jokes about how tight a fit her small bed would be for the two of them. (This level of sexual frankness, out of the question in the Hollywood of the day, is one of the film's surprises.)
Francoise's interest in her suitor is unmistakable, but she surprises Francois by telling him she must leave for another date. He secretly follows her and ends up at a music hall watching a dog-training performance by an elegantly dressed older man named Valentin (Berry).
Valentin's performance that night is enlivened when his longtime assistant, Clara (Arletty), abruptly leaves the act and ends up sharing a drink with a disheartened Gabin at the establishment's bar.
The complex and fluid relationships between these four people are the heart of "Le Jour Se Leve," and the nuances that develop are remarkable. Especially strong is Berry's unapologetic, sarcastic Valentin, whose motto is "Everyone lies, to deny it would be lying" and who provides the perfect foil to Gabin's straightforward Francois.
Even the French, always masters at putting the vagaries of love and attraction on the screen, rarely handle affairs of the heart as effectively as it is done in "Le Jour Se Leve."
'Le Jour Se Leve'
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena.