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'Le jour se lève' (unrated)

Of all the memorable films starring French icon Jean Gabin, none has been harder to see in its original version, or more richly rewards a viewing today, than Marcel Carné’s melancholy masterpiece of poetic realism, 1939’s Le jour se lève.

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 lève 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 also includes the masterful Jules Berry as Gabin’s 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 Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert working together at what many French critics consider their creative peak.

Le jour se lève 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.

Le jour se lève (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.

Le jour se lève 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 works. He looks up one day and sees a vision of beauty and purity: Francoise (Laurent), a young woman who works at a flower 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.

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 assistant, Clara (Arletty), abruptly leaves the act and ends up sharing a drink with a disheartened Gabin.

The complex and fluid relationships between these four people are the heart of Le jour se lève, and the nuances that develop are remarkable. 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 here.

Cast: Jean Gabin, Jules Berry, Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty.

Director: Marcel Carné.

Screenwriters: Jacques Prévert, Jacques Viot.

A Rialto Pictures release. Running time: 93 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.