Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) movie review: man on the edge

Le Jour Se Leve yellow light

Serious film fans will appreciate the 4K restoration of this 1939 French melodrama, which has been all but unseen for 75 years.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I don’t think I’d ever seen a French film from the 1930s before this one, and to say that I was shocked would be an understatement. While the Hays Code was newly censoring American films at that time, here we have nudity; implied extramarital sex (including one scene in which the couple lies together in bed talking; they’re fully clothed, but this is still nothing like what a Hollywood movie at the time could have gotten away with); and frank — not explicit but not at all coded or merely suggestive — talk about sex and, even more notably, about women’s desires.

The nudity was cut, as were some other bits, by the Vichy government a year after Le Jour Se Lève’s initial release in France in June 1939, and the film was soon after banned entirely in that country, thanks to the perception that it was politically problematic. For though there is no overt political content here, there is a sense of despair and outright besiegement that may have hit too close to home after the French surrendered to Nazi Germany.

For here we have François (Jean Gabin), who has holed himself up in his apartment building after having shot a man who, as the film opens, is stumbling down the stairwell, where he will die. As police and a crowd of curious onlookers gather outside, François will think back to what brought him to this low point. It has to do with a woman (of course), sweet orphaned flower seller Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), who seems torn between working man François and suave, older Valentin (Jules Berry). The films jumps back and forth between the present — the single night in which François sits out the police — and the past; director Marcel Carné’s use of dissolves to introduce the flashbacks was groundbreaking for French films in how these are the sole indication that the story is looking backwards (other films had used intercards, for instance, to mark the transition).

Alas, the film is mostly notable today for its historical value. There’s a feeling of the static across the story, but most frustratingly in the scenes in which François is under siege; long still takes on his sad face don’t quite communicate the contemplativeness they’re meant to. I never really understood why the assembled townspeople outside the apartment building take up François as a sort of folk hero; he may be a nice guy, as his friends and neighbors insist, but he just shot a man in, as far as they know, cold blood. (This may have had more resonance for 1930s French audiences facing the more powerful Nazis.) And while Valentin is clearly positioned as the creep and the Wrong Man for Françoise, François also behaves in ways that we today would take as stalkerish: he spies on her, and in one scene that I sort of couldn’t believe I was seeing, he takes hostage her beloved teddy bear when she refuses to sleep with him. Really! (Oh, and when Françoise rebuffs his sexual advances, he starts a pretty much purely physical relationship with Valentin’s ex, Clara [Arletty]. Because a guy’s simply gotta have someplace to stick his dick, I guess, even while he’s still working on winning over the girl of his dreams.)

This new 4K restoration is the first time the film has been seen in its uncut entirety; the movie was also booted out of the purview of U.S. audiences after it was remade by Hollywood as 1947’s The Long Night. Serious film buffs will appreciate this almost lost bit of cinema history made available again.

‘Le Jour Se Lève’ will play at New York City’s Film Forum November 14th-27th, and at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Royal Theater from November 14th. It is new on Region 2 DVD in the U.K. today.

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