d. 31 October 1996, Clamart, Hauts-de-Seine, France
Cinema is the art of forming a team.
Carné’s films now impinge upon our consciousness above all as memories, memories often as potent and unshakeable as those in our own lives. (1)
Some questions about Carné
When thinking, writing or talking about Marcel Carné, the same questions inevitably arise. Were his films successful because of or in spite of him? Were his films the product of a solitary inspiration, or the rewards of collective input? Why is he not remembered as reverently as his contemporaries Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir? Is he merely an orchestrator, someone who got lucky and was able to work regularly with the monstres sacrés of French classical cinema (Jacques Prévert, Jean Gabin, Alexandre Trauner)? What happened to his career after 1945? Is he still important? Was François Truffaut on to something when he described Carné as “a confused soul” and “an obstinate cineaste”? (2) Nowadays, descriptions of Carné tend to be framed in a highly normative register – he is either a “tidy pessimist and adroit technician”, (3) or someone who “needed his collaborators”, (4) and ended up making “dated, backward-looking [and] grotesquely implausible” films. (5)
Yet, few would deny that Carné’s output between 1936 and 1946 –that extraordinary run of films that began with Jenny (1936) and ended with Les portes de la nuit (The Gates of the Night, 1946) – contains the very DNA of French classical film-making. During this period, he surrounded himself with the most accomplished personnel of the 1930s. Films like Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) remain pinnacles of achievement not just for Carné but for his production designers, composers, actors, and cinematographers. So why do biographical studies of Carné continue to marginalise – or ignore outright –his post-war work? Even Edward Baron Turk’s masterful Child of Paradise, the sole English-language critical biography of Carné, devotes only seventy-two pages (of a 500-page study) to Carné’s post-1946 career, and this despite the thirteen more films made after Les portes de la nuit (several of them prize-winners). And therein lies the paradox: Carné was, critically and commercially, one of the most successful directors of the 1930s and the epitome of the ‘Golden Age’ tradition of filmmaking, and yet his career is effectively split in half – post-1946, he was pushed to the periphery from where he was unable ever again to re-emerge. Dubbed a “megalomaniac of decor” by André Bazin, (6) Carné’s concept of filmmaking was predicated on studio-constructed stylised landscapes, expressive camera movements, and a meticulous pictorial composition, properties all viewed with suspicion by post-war critics. While, say, Renoir embraced an aesthetic of impulsiveness and immediacy, Carné’s films were wrongly perceived as pre-planned, airless, frigid. (7) Yes, there are some duds – Le pays d’où je viens (1956) and Les jeunes loups (1968) are difficult to watch, let alone defend, but they remain anomalies in a canon of virtually unalloyed artistic and ideological maturity. And yes, perhaps his oeuvre is one of “unmitigated sadness”, full of films “that rarely inspire or console”. (8) But we should not confuse his cool style and psychological austerity for bleakness or detachment, for embedded in those slowly-paced shots and haunting visuals was vitality, emotional truthfulness, and often, love asserting itself despite the odds. Carné was just only an influence – stylistically, visually, psychologically – on the likes of Carol Reed, Luchino Visconti, and early Ingmar Bergman, but he remains, in his own right, and on his own terms, a great director.
Carné as film critic: sketching a personal style
Carné became interested in cinema while working as a journalist at the monthly film journal Cinémagazine at the end of the 1920s. Three of his more influential articles both mapped out the route that French sound cinema should follow and inflected the Carné style throughout his career. The first, ‘La Caméra, personnage du drame’ (‘The Camera as Dramatic Character’, 1929), praised F. W. Murnau’s use of the tracking shot, and his willingness to adapt technological innovation to his cinematic style. He noted how, in Murnau’s films like Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) and Sunrise (1927), the camera “slid, soared, glided, [and] edged through wherever the narrative demanded [...] becoming a ‘character in the drama’”. (9) Carné reasoned that the movement of the camera coupled with an opening-up and -out of space was a way of showcasing the decor and making it an object of action and spectacle. Throughout his career, the tracking shot became one of Carné’s most recognisable signature motifs: Hôtel du Nord (1938) opens with a complex tracking and panning shot, while the camera movements at the beginning of Les enfants du paradis are analogous to the spectator’s gaze, fleeting and uncertain as to where to look amidst the vast panorama of the Boulevard du Temple. These openings offer voyeuristic and omniscient perspectives that characterize much of Carné’s work. The second, ‘Quand le cinéma descendra-t-il dans la rue?’ (‘When Will the Cinema Go Down onto the Street?’, 1933), praised the populist rhetoric and register of René Clair’s early films. Carné urged filmmakers to study popular novelists like Dabit and Romains to see how they “study certain Parisian quartiers and seize the hidden spirit under the familiar facade of those streets.” (10) In the third, ‘Le Cinema et le Monde’ (‘The Cinema and the World’, 1932), Carné bemoaned the recurrence of “flat vaudeville entertainments [...] grinding out the same pretty stories, incessantly repeating the same tired effects” and denouncing the “banal, infantile little stories, shopworn entertainments.” (11) For Carné, all that counted in the new age of sound cinema were “subjects of real substance that would resonate in our hearts and minds.” (12) Carné would soon put these subjects up on the screen.
First steps: Eldorado, Nogent du dimanche ; Jenny ; Drôle de drame
This will surprise you, but I don’t know if I had a vocation – whether I was really mad about the cinema. When I thought of working on films, I thought of being an assistant director or set manager. Or, in moments of great vanity, a production manager. But I didn’t think of directing at the time.
The transition to filmmaking happened quite by chance. Carné met Belgian director Jacques Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay, at a dinner party, and was shortly after hired by Feyder as camera assistant on Les nouveaux messieurs (1928). In between spells as assistant to Richard Oswald on Cagliostro (1929) and René Clair on Sous les toits de Paris a year later, Carné made the semi-Impressionist silent documentary Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche in 1929. Conceived on a whim – “I bought a camera and some film and I made the film […] I did it to see if I could do something” (13) –Nogent shows the simple pleasures of the Parisian working-class on a Sunday afternoon excursion along the River Marne. As couples dance and soldiers relax in a field, Carné’s obvious pictorial instinct emerges, and, alongside other new directors like Georges Lacombe and Jean Dréville, helped inject a ‘New Objectivity’ aesthetic into late French silent cinema. Carné’s sincerity towards his subject matter and his appropriation of populist iconography and topography would become key visual motifs, and the film’s depiction of escape and freedom from the travails of Paris pre-empts one of Carné’s recurrent themes – characters “seek[ing] ceaselessly to break from the claustrophobia of their physical and spiritual environment and return to an earthly paradise.” (14)
After Feyder returned from a stint in Hollywood, Carné reunited with his mentor and was assistant director on Le grand jeu (1933), Pension Mimosas (1934) and La kermesse héroïque (1935). His first sole film was the moody melodrama Jenny. This story of doomed love and star-crossed lovers marked the beginnings of Carné’s romantic and fatalist mode of address that would endure up to Les portes de la nuit. Having watched Feyder at close quarters, Carné also appropriated a professional style that became a default creative strategy for the rest of his career: teamwork. By continually working with and returning to the same team of technicians, designers, and actors, it is more appropriate to see Carné subscribing to an American model of production, running counter to traditional auteurist approaches of French cinema. He can best be regarded as an orchestrator of a multitude of different talents, a conductor who was best energised “through interaction with the imaginative strengths of his finest co-workers.” (15) Carné fostered a climate of collaborative, symbiotic filmmaking, with each member of the team acting and reacting to each other’s ideas. It reveals an inherently utopian mode of production practice flourishing in France during the 1930s –artists who worked closely with one another, who critiqued, commented upon, and refined each other’s creative output. This climate of reciprocity is symptomatic of 1930s French cinema’s transnational flexibility and its dynamic circulation of diverse cultural influences, whereby an Eastern European set designer and a German cinematographer could successfully cross-pollinate within a French context to inaugurate a new range of textural properties.
Jenny was an important step for Carné, for it delineated his recurrent pictorial style and established the creative partnerships he would return to for the next decade. Jacques Prévert was an integral part of the team, while the casting of major star, Francoise Rosay, reveals the typical Carné product: star-studded and technically proficient. Stylistically, the mixture of theatrical, melodramatic and realist styles throughout the film is striking. When a character remarks at one point that “Life is funny…It always has people entering and exiting; arrivals and departures, departures and arrivals”, the scene verbalises the tension in Jenny between the theatrical (scenes in the nightclub, the café, and the hospital) and the poetic (gloomy shots of motifs of pylons, cranes, railways tracks, and bridges). It also introduces the insistent sense of fate, destiny and life-as-theatre that is one of Carné’s signature themes and would coalesce more fully in Les enfants du paradis.
Drôle de drame (1937), on the other hand, remains one of Carné’s true oddities, full of ludic wordplay and intentionally flamboyant performances. The film, set in Victorian London, remains a cult classic, with it mix of black comedy and satire, and frenetic interplay of sexual sublimation and mistaken identity. Those who berate the director for lacking a sense of humour might do well to recall scenes of Louis Jouvet in a kilt, or Jean-Louis Barrault killing butchers out of his fondness for sheep, or the famous ‘bizarre, bizarre’ scene between Jouvet and Michel Simon. Carné assembled more members of his team, working for the first time with designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Maurice Jaubert, and he combined the register of broad farce with anti-clerical jabs targeted at the Church and the Establishment. Turk suggests that the film’s moral is clear: “the survival of the bourgeoisie is dependent upon the unrewarded labours of the proletariat”; (16) sentiments that clearly anticipate the darker class struggles at the heart of Carné’s later 1930s films. Jenny and Drôle de drame incrementally sketch out a new aesthetic, one that underpinned the optimism of the mid-1930s Popular Front years with a stylised despondency, and one that Carné would develop more consistently with his mixture of the ‘poetic’ and the ‘real’.
Embracing Poetic Realism : Le quai des brumes, Hôtel du Nord, Le jour se lève
When I paint a tree, I make everybody ill at ease. That’s because there is something or someone hidden behind that tree. I paint those things hidden behind things. For me, a swimmer has already drowned.
–Robert Le Vigan, in Le quai des brumes
Carné and Prévert’s best work in the 1930s was the diptych Le quai des brumes and Le jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939). These are both exemplars of French Poetic Realism, that “paradoxical blend of minutely detailed realism with symbolic, suggestive effects” (17) that rendered the quotidian in lyrical terms. Poetic Realism, as developed by Carné and Prévert, revolved around such formal properties as “prominent lyrical speech, a pessimistic backdrop, and an exhaustive representation of tangible social situations”, (18) as well as aesthetic additions like stylised lighting and décor, and expressive acting. Carné’s stylised mise en scène was an extension of the German Kammerspielfilm tradition –exemplified by Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann– which also deployed bleak settings and slow camera movements to form distinct visual correlates to narratives of psychological breakdown and despair. The later works of French painter Maurice de Vlaminck also evoke the urban claustrophobia and chiaroscuro lightplay that typify Carné’s Poetic Realist films: Montparnasse Crossroads (1918) is highly cinematic in its use of perspective and a bird’s-eye-view shot of the quartier, while the lithograph illustration for Raymond Radiguet’s book Le Diable au corps (1926) evokes strong memories of Le quai des brumes. (19) What Drôle de drame, Le quai des brumes and Hôtel du Nord clarified was Carné’s total reliance upon built sets – hardly a surprise given Carné’s apprenticeship under Feyder and Clair, two other directors whose fondness for ‘atmosphere’ was best served within the confines of the film studio. These enclosed environments were necessities given the stories Carné wanted to tell, for his visual style relied upon cramped spaces which corresponded to the romantic-fatalist aspect of his narratives.
Pauline Kael labelled Carné’s work in the 1930s as the “definitive example of sensuous, atmospheric moviemaking – you feel that you’re breathing the air that Gabin breathes.” (20) The release of Le quai des brumes in 1938 and Le jour se lève a year later (both starring Jean Gabin) crystallised Carné’s textural style, incorporating doom-laden narratives, moody long shots of disaffected lovers and army deserters, and witty and nostalgic bons mots penned by Prévert. Le quai des brumes, Carné’s adaptation of a Pierre Mac Orlan short story, (21) starred Gabin in one of his quintessential roles as a deserting soldier who hitches a ride into Le Havre and ends up in a lonely bar on the outskirts of town. He falls in love with Michèle Morgan, falls foul of her lascivious guardian Michel Simon and is eventually killed by local gangster Pierre Brasseur. Carné’s directorial flourishes are exhilarating – he uses symbolic objects such as a ship-in-a-bottle and a translucent raincoat to paraphrase key themes of entrapment and ephemerality. Allen Thiher suggests that several of Carné’s themes recur in the film, most notably the “myth of love as a saving grace” and “the impossibility of love in a world given over to inexorable hostility.” (22) Le quai des brumes remains Carné’s most coldly formal work, bespeaking a more transgressive content to his films than simply pretty sets and star actors. The skewed approach to sexual politics mirrors the relationship issues in Le jour se lève: Morgan is configured at the outset as Brasseur’s ‘girl’, but when that ownership is undermined by Gabin, the end result can only be emasculation for either one or the other man. This triangulation of desire coupled with the funfair bumper car scene – “a metaphoric rendering of France’s chaotic politics” (23) – anticipates the socio-historical contextualisation of Le jour se lève and Carné’s emerging fascination with masculinity, crime, and power hierarchies.
In between Le quai des brumes and Le jour se lève, Carné made Hôtel du Nord, an adaptation by Henri Jeanson of Eugène Dabit’s prize-winning novel. The story charts the comings and goings at the eponymous hotel on the banks of the Canal St. Martin in Paris, and while it may lack Prévert’s acerbic edge, it is a masterpiece of production design and performance, as exemplified by the fidelity of Trauner’s sets and Arletty’s role as the ‘tart with the heart’. Like Le quai des brumes, Hôtel du Nord resonates with themes of imprisonment, disillusionment and the impossibility of escape.
Le jour se lève, with its “perfect inner equilibrium” and “the happy arrangement of all [its] elements” remains Carné’s most memorable work. (24) Characterised by a similar claustrophobic dramaturgy and a visual style that provided exact correspondences with individual emotion, it is a clairvoyant film that peered into a near-future pregnant with foreboding and pessimism. Carné spent his whole life resisting barometrical readings of his films, but Le jour se lève is very much a ‘mood film’, a confirmation of national self-doubt. Despite the ironic implications of its title – ‘Daybreak’ – the film is engorged with melancholy: less than twelve months after the film was released, France had capitulated to the German army, and a whole new ‘daybreak’ emerged across France until the summer of 1944. Structurally too, it is daring and highly influential, with its use of flashbacks predating the American film noir template of doomed, decent men jammed into a claustrophobic architecture by nearly ten years. Future directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin and Jacques Becker would all borrow Carné’s interleaving of the visual and the psychological to create similar narratives of gloom. Recall the final shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s empty hat in Melville’s Le Doulos (1962) – a symbol, like the ringing clock at the end of the Le jour se lève, for the death of a good man. Or Serge Reggiani in Becker’s Casque d’or (1952), guillotined in the street for having killed a man who had corrupted the woman he loves. By the end of the 1930s, Carné’s films could be characterised by a “cold, formal magnificence” and a “meticulous narrative rhetoric” (25) that epitomised the future ‘tradition of quality’ film style that emerged more fully in the 1940s and 1950s. As we shall see, Carné’s perceived aesthetic proximity to this tradition made him a marked man in the eyes of the Cahiers du cinema crowd.
What Marcel did next : Les visiteurs du soir, Les enfants du paradis, Les portes de la nuit)
Audiences during the Occupation […] attended films in couples or groups, asking to be fascinated by a spectacle that benevolently looked down on them. (26)
The German Occupation of France meant the imposition of a different kind of cinema. Realism – poetic, social, magical, or otherwise – was out. According to Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, 1930s French Poetic Realism was a cinema “conjugated in the present tense”; (27) consequently, Carné’s two war-time films opted, like many films made between 1940 and 1944, for historical recreation. Les visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys, 1942) was a fairy-tale romance set in the Middle Ages and Les enfants du paradis took place in an 1840s Paris populated by real characters of the time.
Les visiteurs du soir, set in the 15th century, is based on the French legend of the Devil’s envoys, sent to earth to drive the human beings into despair. It’s a film that deploys one of Carné’s favoured techniques: a long shot to isolate and diminish an individual, group or town within the wider landscape so as to diminish human scale and increase a sense of narrative implacability. Accordingly, the opening sequence shows the two Devil’s envoys (Alain Cuny and Arletty) framed against the desert background. The effect is increased by the use of an iris-out, borrowed from German Expressionism, which pulls out from a close-up on the riders to a long shot which frames Trauner’s immense white medieval castle. Its rich visual texture owes a debt to Les Tres riches heures du duc de Berry, and its reliance on extravagant decor recalls the medieval pictorial aesthetic of La kermesse héroïque.
The pace is deliberately methodical; its Ozu-like longueurs add to the dreamlike quality of the fantasy. The camera tricks are a model of simplicity – in stop-frame Carné makes a homely woman look beautiful; he freezes a whole line of dancers and allows people to step outside time; and has the Devil (Jules Berry, channelling his devious Batala from Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) as well as Le jour se lève’s Valentin) appear in several places at once. If the film’s overt theme – the redemptive power of love to transform human relations – occasionally feels a little heavy-handed, its subliminal undercurrents are unambiguously patriotic. At one point, Berry declaims “I who can hold the whole world in these two hands. It doesn’t take much to amuse me…the world’s unhappiness, that amuses me a lot”. Several critics suggested that the Devil/Hitler was unable to corrupt Gilles and Anne, and the true heart of France – like the lovers – remains beating at the film’s conclusion; for others, the film’s slowness is tantamount to “France’s predisposition to subjugation”. (28)
A canonical work in world cinema, in which its performances, production design and prestige remain undiminished, Les enfants du paradis remains Carné’s best-known and best-loved film; a French Gone With The Wind that remains resolutely immune to criticism. The applied recreation of historical characters and places as a necessary stratagem in the face of German edicts on subject matter and style was perfectly suited to the approach of Les enfants du paradis. From the moment a stage curtain rises to show the full extent of the clutter, chaos and confusion of an 1820s Paris boulevard, the reciprocity between art and life is clear. Its enduring appeal resides less in individual talents and personalities (although Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur were never better) than in the intense ethos of invention and quality, Carné’s poised compositional sense, and, above all, the film’s “warmth and kindness”. (29) Essentially a film about actors acting, Carné’s theatricalised melodramatic world combines different performance modes – tragedy, Shakespeare, pantomime – that retains Poetic Realism’s fusion of pessimism and romanticism. This is, as Pauline Kael recognised, a film poem “on the nature and varieties of love – sacred and profane, selfless and possessive.” (30)
It took two years of interrupted filming at the Victorine studios in Nice to complete the film. (31) The construction requirements for the Boulevard du Crime alone, where much of the exterior action takes place, were staggering. Taking three months to build, 800 cubic metres of earth was removed and replaced by 35 tons of scaffolding. 350 tons of plaster and 500 sq. metres of glass were required to build the fifty facades of theatre and other buildings. (32) When Carné first heard the news of the Allied landings in Normandy in spring 1944, he deliberately slowed down the post-production process. He instinctively realised that rather than being the last film of the Occupation, Les enfants du paradis could be the first film of the Liberation. For a film that expressed the freedom of the individual faced with social restrictions, such a strategy was apposite: when the film was released in March 1945, it became a huge commercial success, screening in Paris for over a year and grossing 41 million francs. For Jill Forbes, the most significant meaning of the film was its contribution to a nationalist project, since the film-makers, as well as Vichy sympathisers and French patriots all wanted “to beat the Americans at their own game by producing a spectacular film that was distinctively French.” (33) If Les enfants du paradis was an explicit attempt to revalorise the French film industry, it was also a veiled attempt to use film as a means of facing up to the realities of the Occupation. It exemplifies a form of ‘symbolic resistance’; the recuperation of the self-respect of an occupied population through “uplifting displays of national narcissism and self-esteem.” (34) Indeed, what is especially fascinating is how Carné and Prévert were able to pull off a thinly-disguised allegory of French resistance under the German occupation. The film cast a shadow over the careers of all those involved in it – like Carné, few of its personnel ever reached such pinnacles again. Yet its bold exploration of sexuality, its radical cultural strategy and its proto-postmodernist fusion of high and low art merits its place in cinema’s pantheon.
Where could Carné go from here? The stentorian Les portes de la nuit (1946), his first film after the Occupation, was seen as a misstep; an attempt to return to an old cinematic register that seemed outmoded in a post-war society suspicious of gloomy narratives. The film seemed too close to the bone for a nation struggling to come to terms with four years of German occupation. Filled with references to “blackouts, black markets, the famine, and the last metro”, (35) and the literal figure of Destiny patrolling a crepuscular Paris, it was admonished for its nostalgic embracing of a Poetic Realist aesthetic that had, by 1946, become “all too familiar and predictable.” (36) Criticism was particularly directed at the wooden casting (Yves Montand and Nathalie Nattier instead of original choices Jean Gabin and Marlene Dietrich), and the decision to build a full-scale replica of the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station. Carné was criticised for financial profligacy at a time of national austerity, (37) and appeared old-fashioned alongside more modern first-time directors like Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati. Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini then suggested in a 1948 interview that Carné should “free himself a little from the straitjacket of the studio, and get out more and look more closely at the man in the street.” (38) This was all deeply ironic, of course, for wasn’t it Carné who had called upon film-makers in the early 1930s to ‘go down onto the street’ and capture the essence of the urban experience? Film-making praxis had changed after the end of World War Two. The Carné aesthetic of ‘closed’ filmmaking, with its emphasis on studio design and rigid determinism had been usurped by the neo-realist aesthetics of René Clement’s La bataille du rail (1946) and Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), films that emphasised documentary-style reportage and spontaneity. By pinpointing the extent to which Carné’s preoccupations with the artifice of studio-based filming took precedence over the supposed freedom of location shooting, Rossellini was articulating an unwarranted criticism of Carné that remains to this day.
Lennon without McCartney : La Marie du port, Juliette ou la clef des songes, Thérèse Raquin, L’air de Paris, Le pays d’où je viens
For years we’ve been offered films by Jacques Prévert, set to images by Marcel Carné. (39)
There are several possible reasons for Carné’s steep post-war decline: his association with a succession of costly flops, from Les portes de la nuit to L’air de Paris (The Air of Paris, 1954); his decision to stay in France during the Occupation being regarded as a tacit acceptance of the Vichy regime and its ideology; and his inability to adapt to the changing nature of the French film industry. Perhaps the most compelling was the end of his partnership with Prévert, a split brought about by the savage reception the pair received for Les portes de la nuit. (40) Certainly, Carné’s films post-Prévert feel less substantial, less credible, not least because of the ability of Prévert’s dialogue to bestow “sincerity and believability upon characters and situations.” (41) The uncoupling was indicative of changed post-war professional circumstances for the 1930s Carné team: Jaubert was killed in action in 1940, Trauner would work twice more for Carné, and then move to Hollywood at the behest of Billy Wilder, while Gabin was struggling to find roles to fit his pre-war persona.
La Marie du port (Marie of the Port, 1950) was a suspenseful adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel about an ambiguous love affair, and partnered Gabin with Nicole Courcel as the alluring seductress, Marie. As if to put paid to criticisms that Carné could only direct in the studio, he filmed on location in Cherbourg. Producer Sacha Gordine gave Carné free reign on his next project. The poetic Juliette ou la clef des songes (Juliette or The Dream Book, 1951) had been conceived ten years earlier by Carné and poet Jean Cocteau but had been shelved after fears of Nazi censorship. Like Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), Juliette’s lyrical otherworldliness is atypical, trading the favoured urban spaces of a Carné film for an unsettling hyper-reality. Again, the (im)possibility of lasting love is interrogated, as is the tension between memory and experience, and romantic transience and sustainability. The film remains overlooked, partly due to André Bazin’s article ‘The Disincarnation of Carné’ that appeared at the same time as the film’s release. Bazin argued that the studio-bound excesses of Carné’s pre-war films looked decidedly unmodern in a post-war climate that necessitated new themes and visual styles. Carné, he concluded, had “a knack for crystallizing all the widespread harshness and criticism” (42) – this was a direct reference to the savage reception that had greeted Juliette at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival.
Thérèse Raquin (The Adultress, 1953) is unmistakably Carné. An adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel transposed to 1950s Lyon, the film is all of a piece with the director’s pre-war works, not least because of the emphasis on atmosphere, and the belief that the protagonists are victims in a cruel game of fate, denied the freedom and happiness they struggle to achieve for themselves. Camille’s boredom is reflected in her regular game nights and riverside walks, and Simone Signoret’s performance is a highlight in a film that relies increasingly on baroque plot twists. Thérèse Raquin also tapped into a current vogue in French cinema – the thriller. With the introduction of a new character late on (Roland Lesaffre, who would become Carné’s favoured actor from the 1950s onwards), the focus shifts from a melodramatic register towards a more psychological portrait of criminality. The film would earn Carné a Silver Lion award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival.
Working again with Lesaffre, L’air de Paris reunited Carné with his Le jour se lève stars, Gabin and Arletty. The film’s pedigree is its combination of “the mainstream and the marginal” (43) – on the one hand it fits neatly into a French ‘tradition of quality’ pigeon-hole by dint of its star names and accomplished production values, while on the other, its account of a close relationship between a boxer and his trainer hints at a transgressive homoerotic dynamic that was hitherto almost unheard of in French cinema. Little wonder that Bazin described the film as “out of kilter, disoriented, and somehow untrue to itself.” (44) Le pays d’où je viens, is, alongside Drôle de drame, the most un-Carnésian of films. For a start it’s in colour, something of an anomaly in his canon. Moreover, it’s a musical, a genre that was still new to French cinema. It was conceived as a star vehicle to launch singer Gilbert Bécaud’s film career – which perhaps explains why there is so little dancing in the film – and shows Carné adopting a playful, unrestrained register. The sense that Carné was treading water in the 1950s, looking for a sustained collaborative dynamic, is evident in the sheer eclecticism of his work. Gone is the untrammelled focus of the late-1930s films; now, as the sixties drew closer, Carné’s barometer was not so much reflecting the nation, as seeking it out.
The New Wave crashes on French cinema’s shores – and Carné’s head: Les tricheurs, Terrain vague
It is very simple. We experienced a period in which a new director was born every morning […] Once emerged from their autobiographical stammerings, the others could only demonstrate their incapacity to build a story
Les tricheurs (The Cheaters, 1958)– Carné’s last popular triumph – was a hugely controversial film, not least because of its troubling depiction of adolescent free-love. It drew five million spectators, and won the Grand Prix du Cinema for 1958. It depicted France’s younger generation as pleasure-seeking rebels, rejecting austerity and discipline for a life without responsibilities. Carné himself detected this disengagement from civic life in the 1950s: “What is especially striking among youth is their lack of interest in politics [...] Not for an instant do they consider that a general ‘modus vivendi’ can be arranged: therefore, why bother oneself with anything!” (45) Carné films the permissiveness and hedonism with a mixture of prurience, detachment, and more than a little glamour. If nowadays it is perceived more as “a quaint documentation of dated mores and fashions”, (46) the fine jazz score by a ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ group that includes Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz bespeaks a modernity that critics at the time overlooked. The film is a companion piece to Terrain vague (1960), a study of juvenile delinquency set in the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris. It highlighted with uncompromising starkness France’s hidden social deprivation and a marginalised counterculture. The end title card – ‘May adults assume responsibility toward their children’ – recalls Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955); indeed, Terrain vague is part of a whole sub-genre of films made in France in the late 1950s that tackled the issue of juvenile delinquency. Along with Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Jean Delannoy’s Chiens perdus sans collier (1955) and Julien Duvivier’s Boulevard (1960), the film is a knight’s-move away from Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950)
Typically, Terrain vague was dismissed on its release. Writing in Le Monde, Jean de Baroncelli called it “neither mediocre, vulgar, nor shameful. It is simply a failed film.” (47) Carné’s direction and Claude Renoir’s (brother of Jean) cinematography subtly capture the precarious world in which the alienated protagonists live. Apartment blocks and dilapidated old factories symbolise this world of social exclusion and deprivation. Far removed from the glittering star vehicles of the 1930s, Carné uses a young and inexperienced cast to better evoke the milieu and wrings pathos from the occasionally shocking undercurrents of teenage rape and incest.
By now, Carné’s reputation was taking a severe beating at the hands of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard advocated a radical break with France’s pre-war studio aesthetic, and Claude Mauriac wrote “[I]t is not Carné who has declined; it is we who, from the start, overestimated him.” (48) This fall from grace in post-war cultural circles allegorizes the changes in approach to film ‘realism’ between the 1930s and the 1950s. It was a rare review of Carné’s films in the 1930s that neglected to mention the beauty and verisimilitude of the mise en scène. His films offered an exportable version of French cinema that concentrated on plastic values and the importance of mood and atmosphere, yet it was this very dependence upon plasticity – studio-controlled set design and lighting – that smacked of aesthetic inauthenticity and “meretricious academicism” (49) for post-war film critics. The great irony is that Carné – exponent of the so-called cinéma du papa – had actually begun to tackle more social realist subjects in the late 1950s. Yet his thematic and visual conventions were deemed very much ‘of their own time’ in comparison to the self-reinventing aspects of other post-war national film praxes, and the failure of Juliette ou la clef des songes and Le pays d’où je viens to find favour with critics signalled French filmmaking’s definitive rupture with the dominant production values of the 1930s towards the Nouvelle Vague terrain of a spontaneous guerrilla-style approach.
Raging against the dying of the light : Du mouron pour les petits oiseaux, Trois chambres à Manhattan, Les jeunes loups, Les assassins de l’ordre, La merveilleuse visite, La bible
Why [am I] always being honoured and celebrated abroad, while in the country that is my own, in which I was born, I encounter only attacks, sarcasm, and even disdain for those who claim to love an Art to which I have devoted my life?
Buoyed by the commercial success of Les tricheurs and the socially-motivated relevance of Terrain vague, Carné launched himself into ever more diverse projects at the beginning of the 1960s. Yet he was to remain disappointed, as projects remained unfinished or stymied by bureaucratic and financial interference. An updated version of Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias was called off after Carné discovered that producers wanted to replace his choice for the heroine, Claudia Cardinale, with the more bankable Jeanne Moreau. If it wasn’t the interference, it was the apathy: producers kept clear of Carné’s plan for a biopic of the Russian impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (to be played by Orson Welles). Thus, out of sheer desperation, Carné agreed to direct Du mouron pour les petits oiseaux (1962), an adaptation of Albert Simonin’s 1960s gangster thriller. Rather than return to a style and sensibility that Carné had embraced so successfully with Le quai des brumes, he decided to film Simonin’s novel as broad farce. The result was an unmitigated disaster:
its staccato plot, which flits to and from the residents of a Paris apartment building, seems a self-conscious attempt to replicate the community dynamic and popular appeal of Hôtel du Nord, but instead lacks focus and discipline. This is most evident in the performance style of Dany Saval, whose Parisian gouaille and exaggerated swagger appears a deliberate facsimile of Arletty’s role in Hôtel du Nord. (50)
Trois chambres à Manhattan (1965), shot primarily on the streets of New York, and Les jeunes loups remain two of Carné’s rarest films. Only with Les assassins de l’ordre (1971) did Carné manage to fully exert himself. Jacques Brel is a judge who investigates a case involving the unlawful death of a small-time criminal and police detainee. This is one of the few French films to tackle the theme of the police versus the judiciary, and Carné’s sympathies remain firmly with the judge and his criticisms of the injustices taking place. As a gritty thriller that taps into the range of polars that became increasingly popular in French cinema in the mid-1970s, Carné mines a similar seam to directors like Yves Boisset and José Giovanni, whose films Un condé (1970) and La scoumoune (1972) reflected failings in the French judicial and political system in the aftermath of the May 1968 protests and the collapse of the De Gaulle presidency. Carné’s direction is subtle, almost minimalist, avoiding the stylistic excesses that undermined the realism of other contemporary crime dramas. What we see here is a new-found versatility from Carné, an ability to adapt to changing social, political, and above all aesthetic standards. Far from being ossified, Carné is actively engaging with and interrogating new and unfamiliar genre forms, investing them with his own brand of cynicism and visual rigour.
Carné’s last fictional film La merveilleuse visite (The Wonderful Visit, 1974) was another adaptation, this time of an early H. G. Wells novel entitled The Wonderful Visit (first published in 1895). When a beautiful young man is found naked on a beach, he says he’s an angel. The locals aren’t convinced – they view him with fear and dismay; his presence provokes nothing but unhappiness. In the end, he transforms into a gull, and flies away. The charm and whimsy of Wells’ novel represents a final opportunity for Carné to create another distinctive world – this time a rural Breton village – that remains “as dreamily unreal as any in his big-city melodramas.” (51) It wasn’t a happy shoot: financiers kept withdrawing during pre-production, and filming took nearly three years. It is tempting to argue that the experiences of the film’s central character – a naïve outsider who has nothing but good intentions but who only encounters hostility wherever he goes – echo those of Carné in his later career. His last film was La bible (The Bible), made in 1977. A study of the Old and New Testament mosaics on Sicily’s Monreale Basilica, it marked a return to the documentary register of Nogent, nearly fifty years earlier. The commissions eventually dried up, and in his 1989 memoirs, Carné listed nearly 40 post-war film projects that he initiated but were never finished. Some of them, like La Reine Margot, Mary Poppins, and Germinal were eventually made by other directors; some remain tantalising ‘what-ifs’ – we can only imagine what his adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle might have looked like, or his 1992 version of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Mouche with Juliette Binoche that was cut short after Carné fell ill. (52)
Carné’s career did not end with Les enfants du paradis and Les portes de la nuit. It just looks that way. Yes, he received a special César award in 1979 to honour Les enfants du paradis as ‘the best French film in the history of talking pictures’. And yes (irony alert ahead), Truffaut did eventually admit “I have made twenty-three films. Well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis”. For Truffaut to have earlier declared that Carné was merely Prévert’s metteur en images highlights the post-war French argument about the relative importance of scriptwriter and director in cinema alongside skewed assumptions about the primacy of written text over its performance. Carné’s films never belonged to cinéma de qualité, but because, in the eyes of the Cahiers cultural gatekeepers, his entire corpus was predicated on a careful, fastidious methodology, his work could never be spoken of in the same breath as Vigo, Renoir, Bresson or Clouzot.
Those who criticise Carné for not ‘going down onto the street’, and denounce him for remaining in thrall to the studio aspect of film-making, conveniently forget that a built studio set allowed Carné to impose his vision of things and to compose a universe in harmony with the action. His realism always remained ‘true to life’ and through stylisation was nudged into the realms of the poetic. Carné did not seek to hermetically seal out human vitality through a total subordination to design and mise en scène, but carefully created urban spaces in which his populist narratives could unfold. But his direction could not function without Prévert’s words, or Jaubert’s music or Trauner’s sets, and as such, it was a confluence of such skill and experience that enabled the Carné oeuvre to imprint itself so fully on our consciousness. His films fit the definition of classical French cinema, with their “concern with visual style and a studio-created realism, a reliance upon detailed scripts with structure and dialogue separately elaborated, and a foregrounding of star performers to whom all elements of decor and photography are subordinate.” (53) It is this ‘tradition of quality’ that sums up the Carné touch: professional, meticulous, harmonious. Rather than being used as a stick to beat him with, these qualities, and the blissful, woozy verbal and visual memories they conjure up, are Carné’s tools of the trade, and with them, he instigated an extraordinary new cinematic style: not lyrical melodrama, not film gris, not even Poetic Realism, but Romantic Expressionism.
- Gilbert Adair, Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, Faber, London, 1995, pp. 90-1.
- François Truffaut, ‘Le pays d’où je viens de Marcel Carné: une consternante pochade’, Arts; lettres; spectacles, 31 October-6 November 1956, p. 3.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, London, 2003, p. 136.
- Geoff Andrew, Directors A-Z: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Film-makers, Prion, London, 1999, p. 34.
- Gilbert Adair, ‘Obituary – Marcel Carné’, The Independent, 1 November 1996. Available online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-marcel-carne-1350140.html
- André Bazin, ‘The Disincarnation of Carné’, in Mary Lea Bandy (ed.), Rediscovering French Film, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1983, p. 131.
- Jean-Louis Barrault recalls how Carné’s ‘meticulousness in setting up shots was so excessive that many of us became a bit irritated’, in Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass. & London, 1989, p. 56.
- Turk, p. 433.
- Marcel Carné, ‘La caméra, personnage du drame’, Cinémagazine, 12 July 1929, reprinted in Robert Chazal, Marcel Carné, Seghers, Paris, 1965, p. 88.
- Carné, ‘Quand le cinema descendra-t-il dans la rue?’, Cinémagazine, November 1933, reprinted in Chazal, p. 96.
- Carné, ‘Le Cinema et le monde’, Cinémagazine, 12 November 1932.
- Marcel Carné – Ma vie a l’ecran, dir. Jean-Denis Bonan, 1994.
- Turk, p. 26.
- Jill Forbes, Les Enfants du Paradis, BFI, London, 1997, p. 44.
- Turk, p. 89.
- Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1990, p.173.
- Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present, New York, Continuum, 2004, pp. 80-1. Carné rejected the term ‘Poetic Realism’, and spent most of his career telling interviewers that he preferred the designation ‘fantastique sociale’.
- American realist painter Reginald Marsh’s compositions also anticipate much of poetic realist iconography. His depictions of 1920s urban American life bear strong resemblance to poetic realism’s most enduring images. Death Avenue, with its tall tenement block in a largely denuded cityscape, its nearby railway train, its factory chimneys and disillusioned workers foreshadows the visual texture and tone of Le jour se lève.
- Pauline Kael, ‘Le Jour se leve’, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Marion Boyars, New York & London, 1993, p. 383.
- Carné and Prévert transposed the action from Paris’s Montmartre district to the port town of Le Havre.
- Allen Thiher, The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1979, p. 115.
- Turk, p. 116.
- Bazin, p. 132.
- Lanzoni, p. 86.
- Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 325.
- Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, ‘Beneath the Despair, the Show goes on: Marcel Carné’s “Les Enfants du Paradis” (1943-5)’, trans. by Marianne Johnson, in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edition, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, p. 78.
- Turk, p. 202.
- David Thomson, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, in Have you Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p. 261.
- Kael, ‘Children of Paradise’, 5001 Nights at the Movies, p.133.
- The film began as a Franco-Italian co-production but was abandoned by the Italians when Allied forces invaded Sicily in September 1943. Vichy politics also caused difficulties: composer Joseph Kosma and designer Alexandre Trauner, both Hungarian Jews, had to work on the film clandestinely. In 1944, Robert Le Vigan, due to play Jéricho, the rag-and-bone man, was forced to flee to Germany due to his collaborationist views and pro-Nazi radio broadcasts. His scenes were re-shot with Pierre Renoir (brother of Jean) in the role.
- Fabric for costumes, food for the crew, electricity, and film stock were all classified by the German authorities as strategic commodities, which makes the film’s production all the more remarkable. Trauner asserted that the film would not have been made had it not been for the black market.
- Forbes, p. 18.
- Werner Rings, Life with the Enemy: Collaboration and Resistance in Hitler’s Europe 1939-1945, trans. J. Maxwell Brown, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1982, pp. 158.
- Andrew, p. 325.
- Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, 2nd edition, Routledge, London and New York, 2005, p. 170.
- The set for the metro station, built at the Joinville studios in Paris was 120m long, 50m wide and 17m high. Compare this to the set for the Boulevard du Crime in Les enfants du paradis, which was only 80m long.
- in Chazal, p. 180.
- Francois Truffaut, ‘Le pays d’où je viens de Marcel Carné: une consternante pochade’, p. 3.
- Le Figaro called Prévert ‘Jacques le fataliste’.
- Turk, p. 363.
- Bazin, p. 131.
- Richard Dyer, ‘No Place for Homosexuality: Marcel Carné’s “L’Air de Paris” (1954)’, in Hayward and Vincendeau, p. 127.
- Dyer, p. 128.
- Françoise Giraud, ‘Marcel Carné: Je n’ai rien inventé’, L’Express, 16 October 1958, pp. 18-19.
- Turk, p. 404.
- Jean de Baroncelli, ‘“Terrain vague” de Marcel Carné’, Le Monde, 15 November 1960, p. 13.
- Claude Mauriac, ‘“Juliette” ou la clé des songes cinématographiques?’, Le Figaro Littéraire, 26 May 1951.
- Henri Agel, Les Grands Cinéastes, Paris Editions Universitaires, Paris, 1959, p. 172.
- Incidentally, a first screenplay had been written for Arletty, who was to play the concierge Mme. Communal. Due to medical complications, however, she virtually went blind, and retired from acting.
- Bob Baker, ‘“La merveilleuse visite”’, in John Pym (ed.) Time Out Film Guide, 10th edition, Penguin, London, 2002, p. 747.
- Carné remained adamant that he could have made Mouche: “I could do as Visconti once did and work from a wheelchair. Nowadays you can follow everything on a little screen, and I could go over to talk to the actors on wheels. But I doubt that any French producer would accept that.”
- Roy Armes, ‘Marcel Carné’, in Laurie Collier Hillstrom (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 2: Directors, St. James Press, Detroit, 1997, p. 137.
Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929)
Drôle de drame (Bizarre, Bizarre, 1937)
Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938)
Hôtel du Nord (1938)
Le jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939)
Les visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys, 1942)
Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945)
Les portes de la nuit (The Gates of the Night, 1946)
La Marie du port (Marie of the Port, 1950)
Juliette ou la clef des songes (Juliette or The Dream Book, 1951)
Thérèse Raquin (The Adultress, 1953)
L’air de Paris (The Air of Paris, 1954)
Le pays d’où je viens (1956)
Les tricheurs (The Cheaters, 1958)
Terrain vague (1960)
Du mouron pour les petits oiseaux (1962)
Trois chambres à Manhattan (1965)
Les jeunes loups (1968)
Les assassins de l’ordre (1971)
La merveilleuse visite (The Wonderful Visit, 1974)
La bible (The Bible, 1977)
As Assistant Director
Les nouveaux messieurs (Jacques Feyder, 1928)
Cagliostro (Richard Oswald, 1929)
Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930)
Le grand jeu (Jacques Feyder, 1934)
Pension Mimosas (Jacques Feyder, 1935)
Films About Carné
Marcel Carné, ou si le destin savoir voir (Claude-Jean Philippe, 1978)
Carné, vous avez dit Carné? (Jean-Denis Bonan, 1994)
Marcel Carné – Ma vie à l’écran (Jean-Denis Bonan, 1994)
Marcel Carné, La Vie à belle dents, Paris :Pierre Belfond, 1989.
Robert Chazal, Marcel Carné, Paris : Seghers, 1965.
Hélène Climent-Oms,‘Carné parle’, Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, 5 (Winter 1972), pp. 31-49.
Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, ‘Beneath the Despair, the Show Goes On: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1943-5)’, trans. by Marianne Johnson, in French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edition, ed. by Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 78-88.
Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present, New York: Continuum, 2004.
Michel Perez, Les Films de Carné, Paris, Ramsay, 1986.
Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1989.
A whole range of material can be found here: interviews, reviews, selections of Carné’s film criticism, information on the Carné team, and links to other resources.