French film director Marcel Carné (1906–1996) is regarded as one of Europe's great filmmakers. Though he had a long career, his reputation rests on the six films he made from 1937 to 1945. One of the films in that period, Les Enfants du paradis (1945), is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the greatest movies ever made. In his best works, he collaborated with popular French poet and screen-writer Jacques Prévert.
Carné was born on August 18, 1906, in Paris, France. He was the son of Paul and Maria (Recouet) Carné. He was educated at the Education Ecole d'Apprentissage du Meuble in France, and worked as an apprentice cabinet maker and an insurance clerk in the mid-1920s. In the late 1920s, he broke into film. In 1928, he worked as an assistant to cameraman Georges Périnal on Les Nouveaux Messieurs, for director Jacques Feyder, who would influence both Carné and the direction of French Cinema. The following year, Carné made his first film, a short documentary entitled Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche. He also made a number of publicity shorts, but his documentary so impressed Rene Clair that, in 1930, the great French director hired Carné as his assistant director on Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris).
In the 1930s, Carné again worked with Feyder, serving as his assistant director on Pension Mimosas (1934) and La Kermesse heroique (Carnival in Flanders, 1935). During this period, Carné also worked as a film critic, sometimes publishing his articles under the pseudonym Albert Cranche. He was editor-in-chief of Hebdo-Film and wrote for Cinemagazine, Cinemonde, and Film Sonore.
Began Collaboration with Jacque Prévert
In 1936, with the help of Feyder and his actress wife, Francoise Rosay, Carné secured his first feature-length film assignment, directing Jenny. Though this first feature film has been described as a "routine melodrama," Carné would soon establish himself as one of the leading directors in France. Moreover, his works would be praised throughout Europe as well as the world.
The script for Jenny was written by Jacques Prévert, and the collaboration initiated an ongoing, fruitful professional relationship that helped develop Carné's reputation. Prévert, a poet, would write the scripts for most of Carné's greatest films. In his poetry, Prévert, who was associated with the Surrealist movement in France, blended humor, sentimentality, fatalism and social satire. This style, described as poetic realism, was popular in the years leading up to the German occupation of France and World War II, and it informed many of his screenplays.
Carné's best work resulted from his collaborations with Prévert and included Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939), Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) and Les Portes de la nuit (Gate of the Night, 1946).
Bringing the attitudes of poetic realism into cinema, these films were both lyrical and pessimistic, contrasting or combining dismal reality with an intuited metaphysical realm, and self-determinism with cruel fate. They were characterized by Carné's richly detailed recreations of gritty social environments.
Their collaborative film works would dominate the French film industry for ten years. But the professional relationship did not survive long after World War II, and the team ended their working relationship in 1947.
Established as a Major Director
Carné's second feature film, Drôle de drame (Bizarre, Bizarre), a crime/comedy/fantasy released in 1937, was a great improvement over Jenny, due in large part to Prévert's contribution. The film itself has been described as peculiar, and it initially confused French audiences. It reflected Prévert's taste for the absurd and the surreal. The story is set in England in the early 1900s, and the filmmakers took aim at the bourgeoisie. Today, its blend of "screwball comedy" elements and dark humor seem ahead of its time.
The film also marked the start of ongoing collaborations with set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma. Previously, Carné and the Hungarian-born Trauner worked together on Feyder's La Kermesse heroique.
As much as an improvement that Carné's second feature represented, it was Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939), two more collaborations with Prévert, that truly established Carné as a major European director. The two films were imbued with the romantic fatalism that typified poetic realism and that would characterize this era of French cinema. In the films, lovers find fleeting happiness in a violent and bleak world.
Le Jour se lève especially epitomized poetic realism, as it focused on working-class people and had a fatalistic, tragic plot. Released in France in December 1939, during the occupation, just before the start of World War II, the film was banned by French authorities because of its defeatism.
Displaying the essence of poetic realism, the film was moody and atmospheric, involving characters locked into circumstances beyond their control. Careful attention was paid to elements such as lighting, detailed sets and music. Composer Kosma set Prévert's poem "Les Feuilles mortes" to music, and the distinct melody formed the basis of a popular song that became known in the United States as "Autumn Leaves." The melody befitted a film whose overwhelming effect is best described as haunting.
The film features a unique and elaborate flashback plot structure that would influence later films. The story involves "Francois," a decent man driven to commit murder for love. At the outset of the film he is hiding out from police in his apartment. During the siege, he recalls the circumstances that led him to kill another man. Everything is revealed in a series of flashbacks, which tell the story of how Francois fell in love with Francoise, a young flower vendor under the spell of the evil Valentin, a dog trainer who performs at a music hall.
The film had a pungent atmosphere developed, in large part, from Carné's characteristic careful attention to detail. Carné and set designer Trauner created an apartment set as a single unit without movable walls. In addition, Carné, seeking realistic effect, insisted that real bullets be used for the scenes when the police fire upon Francois' apartment.
In this film, as in his best works, Carné was greatly influenced by Feyder, who developed a style of French filmmaking that exhibited a strong visual flair, with realism created in the artificial environment of a studio. The style also involved elaborate scripts, intelligent dialogue and actors that could display "star" presence. As a result of the unique plot structure and the well-written dialogue, Hollywood took notice and remade the film in 1947 as The Long Night, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes and Vincent Price as a sinister magician.
German Occupation Coincided with Career Peak
In between Quai des brumes and Le Jour se lève, Carné released Hotel du Nord (1938), with a script written by Jean Aurenche instead of Prévert. Still, it was a fatalistic romantic melodrama, like the other two films.
Though their previous films were banned during the Occupation, Carné and Prévert were allowed to continue working together. In addition, Carné continued working with Trauner and Kosma, but the collaborations had to be conducted in secret, as the set designer and the composer were both Jewish. However, Carné was limited in what he could depict on film. Contemporary events were off limits under the German occupation, and films reflecting the pessimistic poetic realism were forbidden, so Carné and Prévert turned to historical subject matter. This resulted in a new visual style. Instead of working in the gray shades of urban, working-class despair, Carné turned to the more ornate and theatrical look of the period-film spectacle. Made in 1942, Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoys), a costume romance-drama, was an allegory about love and death set in medieval times. Though the film was successful at the time, it has aged badly.
Carné's next film, Les Enfants du paradis, released in 1945, was his masterpiece. An ambitious work, it is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Filmed during the war, but not released until after the liberation of France, the movie runs for over three hours and it included two parts, each a full-length feature. It contains both intimate scenes between actors as well as large crowd scenes, and Carné handled both with the skill of a master. Containing elements of farce and tragedy, Les Enfants du paradis is a love story set in the theater society of nineteenth century Paris. More specifically, it is a fictionalized depiction of the life of French mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Set in 1840, the plot concerns four men, including Deburau, who are in love with the same mysterious woman. However, only Deburau harbors honorable intentions. "Carné would be a worldranking director with this film alone," wrote film critic and historian Parker Tyler in 1962 in his book Classics of the Foreign Film.
Post-War Career Decline
When World War II ended, and Les Enfants du paradis was released, Carné was still a young man—he was only in his late thirties—and his future seemed bright. However, his first post-war film, Les Portes de la nuit, which returned to the pre-war concerns of poetic realism, was an expensive failure, despite a script by Prévert.
The previously successful collaborators next began work on La Fleur de l'âge, but the film was abandoned soon after production started. It turned out to be the last time that Carné and Prévert worked together. Carné's career would continue, lasting until the 1970s, but his films never reached the levels of his earlier efforts.
In 1953, he filmed Thérèse Raquin, an adaptation of the Emile Zola novel. The film was a popular success, but critics were less enthusiastic than the public. His next four films, L'Air de Paris (1954), Le Pays d'òu je viens (1956), Les Tricheurs (The Cheaters, 1958), and Terrain vague, had nowhere near the impact of his earlier work.
By this time, Carné's career had fallen victim to changing film fashions. His brand of studio-anchored film had been replaced by the "new wave" cinema, advanced by young directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard. The works of these new directors took filmmaking outside of the studio and into the streets. Their films were low-budget productions made on location and featuring relatively unknown or non-professional actors. This combined to create a greater sense of reality. Further, the films possessed a spontaneous and improvisational feel that made older, studio-bound films feel artificial and passé. The emergence of this new style provoked Carné to comment, "The new wave assassinated me. But then it assassinated the cinema, too." However, his condemnation was far too harsh, as the "new wave" brought new life into the cinema.
Further, the new breed of filmmakers did not end Carné's career. Rather, he persevered. In 1962, he made Du mouron pour les petits oiseaux. This was followed by Trois Chambres à Manhattan (1965), Les Jeunes Loups (1967), Les Assassins de l'order (1971), and La Merveilleuse Visite (1974).
In 1976, he made what turned out to be his last film, a documentary called La Bible, which was released both theatrically and to television.
Honored for Career in Film
In 1984, he received a career tribute from the French film industry, which dedicated that year's Cannes Film Festival to him in honor of his 75th birthday. In 1992, Carné attempted to make one more film, an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's novel Mouche. However, Carné became ill during early production stages, and financing for the film was withdrawn.
Carné died on October 31, 1996, at age 90 in Clamart, near Paris, in France. In the 1990s, in a poll that included 600 French film critics and film professionals, Les Enfants du paradis was voted the "Best French Film of the Century."
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, fourth edition. St. James Press, 2000.
Tyler, Parker, Classics of the Foreign Film, Citadel Press, 1968.
Economist, November 16, 1996.
"Biography for Marcel Carné," Turner Classic Movies, http://tcmdb.com/participant/participant.jsp?scarlettParticipantId=29168&afiParticipantId;=0 (December 29, 2005).
"Marcel Carné," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9020400?querynew%2Bgerman%2Bcinema&ct= (December 28, 2005).
Nationality: French. Born: Batignolles, Paris, 18 August 1909. Career: Worked as insurance clerk, mid-1920s; assistant to cameraman Georges Périnal on Les Nouveaux Messieurs, 1928; worked as film critic, and made short film, 1929; assistant to René Clair on Sous les toits de Paris, 1930; editor-in-chief, Hebdo-Films journal, and
member, "October" group, early 1930s; assistant to Jacques Feyder, 1933–35; directed first feature, Jenny, 1936. Awards: Special Mention, Venice Festival, for Quai des brumes, 1938. Died: 31 October 1996, in Clamart, France.
Films as Director:
Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche
Drôle de drame (Bizarre Bizarre)
Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows); Hotel du Nord
Le Jour se lève (Daybreak); École communale (abandoned due to war)
Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoys)
Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise)
Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night)
La Fleur de l'âge (not completed)
La Marie du port (+ co-sc)
Juliette ou la Clé des songes (+ co-sc)
Thérèse Raquin (The Adulteress) (+ co-sc)
L'Air de Paris (+ co-sc)
Le Pays d'où je viens (+ co-sc)
Les Tricheurs (The Cheaters)
Terrain vague (+ co-sc)
Du mouron pour les petits oiseaux (+ co-sc)
Trois Chambres à Manhattan (+ co-sc)
Les Jeunes Loups (The Young Wolves)
Les Assassins de l'ordre (+ co-sc)
La Merveilleuse Visite (+ co-sc)
La Bible (feature doc for TV and theatrical release)
By CARNÉ: book—
Les Enfants du Paradis, with Jacques Prevert, London, 1988.
By CARNÉ: articles—
Interview, with F. Cuel and others, in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1978.
"Comment est ne Le Quai des brumes," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 October 1979.
"Marcel Carné sous la coupole," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 July 1980.
Interview in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1988.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1991.
On CARNÉ: books—
Béranger, Jean-Louis, Marcel Carné, Paris, 1945.
Landrey, Bernard, Marcel Carné, sa vie, ses films, Paris.
Quéval, Jean, Marcel Carné, Paris, 1952.
Prévert, Jacques, Children of Paradise, New York, 1968.
Armes, Roy, French Film since 1946: The Great Tradition, New York, 1970.
Prévert, Jacques, Le Jour se lève, New York, 1970.
Perez, Michel, Les films de Carné, Paris, 1986.
Turk, Edward Baron, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and theGolden Age of Cinema, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989.
On CARNÉ: articles—
Manvell, Roger, "Marcel Carné," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1946.
Lodge, J.F., "The Cinema of Marcel Carné," in Sequence (London), December 1946.
Lambert, Gavin, "Marcel Carné," in Sequence (London), Spring 1948.
Michel, J., "Carné ou la Clé des songes," in Cinéma (Paris), no.12, 1956.
Sadoul, Georges, "Les Films de Marcel Carné, expression de notre époque," in Les Lettres Françaises (Paris), 1 March 1956.
Stanbrook, Alan, "The Carné Bubble," in Film (London), November/December 1959.
"Carné Issue" of Cahiers de la Cinémathèque (Perpignan), Winter 1972.
Turk, Edward Baron, "The Birth of Children of Paradise," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1979.
"Le Quai des brumes Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 October 1979.
Gillett, John, "Salute to a French Master," in Radio Times (London), 2 March 1985.
Virmaux, A., and O. Virmaux, "La malediction: Le film inachève de Carné et Prevert," in Cinématographe (Paris), October 1986.
Thoraval, Yves, "Marcel Carné: Un Parisian à Toulouse," in Cinéma (Paris), 14 January 1987.
Kolker, Robert Phillip, "Carné's Les Portes de la nuit and the Sleep of French Cinema," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Fall 1987.
Charity, Tom, "Heaven Sent," in Time Out (London), 18 August 1993.
Obituary, in Sequences (Haute-Ville), November/December 1996.
Obituary, in Film en Televisie (Brussels), December 1996.
Palm, Stina, "En stillbild ur Marcel Carnés 'Pradisets barn,"' in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 38, 1996–1997.
Bates, Robin, "Audiences on the Verge of a Fascist Breakdown: Male Anxieties and Late 1930s French Film," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Spring 1997.
* * *
At a time when film schools were non-existent and training in filmmaking was acquired through assistantship, no one could have been better prepared for a brilliant career than Marcel Carné. He worked as assistant to René Clair on the first important French sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, and to Jacques Feyder on the latter's three great films of 1934–35. Though he had also made a successful personal documentary, Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche, and a number of publicity shorts, it was only thanks to the support of Feyder and his wife, the actress Françoise Rosay, that Carné was able to make his debut as a feature filmmaker with Jenny in 1936. If this was a routine melodrama, Carné was able in the next three years to establish himself as one of Europe's leading film directors.
During the period up to the outbreak of war in 1939 Carné established what was to be a ten-year collaboration with the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and gradually built up a team of collaborators—including the designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Maurice Jaubert—which was unsurpassed at this period. In quick succession Carné made the comedy Drole de drame, which owes more to Prévert's taste for systematic absurdity and surreal gags than to the director's professionalism, and a trio of fatalistic romantic melodramas, Quai des brumes, Hotel du nord and Le Jour se lève. These are perfect examples of the mode of French filmmaking that had been established by Jacques Feyder: a concern with visual style and a studio-created realism, a reliance on detailed scripts with structure and dialogue separately elaborated, and a foregrounding of star performers to whom all elements of decor and photography are subordinate. Though the forces shaping a character's destiny may be outside his or her control, the story focuses on social behavior and the script offers set-piece scenes and confrontations and witty or trenchant dialogue that enables the stars to display their particular talents to the full.
The various advocates of either Prévert or Carné have sought to make exclusive claims as to which brought poetry to the nebulous and ill-defined "poetic realism" that these films are said to exemplify. In retrospect, however, these arguments seem over-personalized, since the pair seem remarkably well-matched. The actual differences seem less in artistic approach than in attitude to production. From the first, Carné, heir to a particular mode of quality filmmaking, was concerned with an industry, a technique, a career. Prévert, by contrast, though he is a perfect example of the archetypal 1930s screenwriter, able to create striking star roles and write dazzling and memorable dialogue, is not limited to this role and has a quite separate identity as surrealist, humorist and poet.
The pair share a certain fantastic conception of realism, with film seen as a studio construct in which fidelity to life is balanced by attention to a certain poetic atmosphere. Carné's coldly formal command of technique is matched by Prévert's sense of the logic of a tightly woven narrative. If it is Prévert's imagination that allows him to conceive both the amour fou that unites the lovers and the grotesque villains who threaten it, it is Carné's masterly direction of actors that turns Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan into the 1930s ideal couple and draws such memorable performances from Michel Simon, Jules Berry and Arletty.
The collaboration of Prévert and Carné was sustained during the very different circumstances of the German Occupation, when they together made two films that rank among the most significant of the period. Since films in the mode of 1930s poetic realism were now banned, it is hardly surprising that Carné and Prévert should have found the need to adopt a radically new style. Remaining within the concept of the studio-made film, but leaving behind the contemporary urban gloom of Le Jour se lève, they opted for a style of elaborate and theatrical period spectacle. The medieval fable of Les Visiteurs du soir was an enormous contemporary success but it has not worn well. Working with very limited resources the filmmakers—assisted clandestinely by Trauner and the composer Joseph Kosma—succeeded in making an obvious prestige film, a work in which Frenchmen could take pride at a dark moment of history. But despite the presence of such players as Arletty and Jules Berry, the overall effect is ponderous and stilted.
Carné's masterpiece is Les Enfants du paradis, shot during the war years but released only after the Liberation. Running for over three hours and comprising two parts, each of which is of full feature length, Les Enfants du paradis is one of the most ambitious films ever undertaken in France. Set in the twin worlds of theatre and crime in nineteenth century Paris, this all-star film is both a theatrical spectacle in its own right and a reflection on the nature of spectacle. The script is one of Prévert's richest, abounding in wit and aphorism, and Carné's handling of individual actors and crowd scenes is masterly. The sustained vitality and dynamism of the work as it moves seemingly effortlessly from farce to tragedy, from delicate love scenes to outrageous buffoonery, is exemplary, and its impact is undimmed by the years.
Marcel Carné was still only thirty-six and at the height of his fame when the war ended. Younger than most of those who now came to the fore, he had already made masterly films in two quite different contexts and it seemed inevitable that he would continue to be a dominant force in French cinema despite the changed circumstances of the postwar era. But in fact the first post-war Carné-Prévert film, Les Portes de la nuit, was an expensive flop. When a subsequent film, La Fleur de l'âge, was abandoned shortly after production had begun, one of the most fruitful partnerships in French cinema came to an end. Carné directed a dozen more films, from La Marie du port in 1950 to La Merveilleuse Visite in 1973, but he was no longer a major force in French filmmaking.
Marcel Carné was an unfashionable figure long before his directing career came to an end. Scorned by a new generation of filmmakers, Carné grew more and more out of touch with contemporary developments, despite an eagerness to explore new subjects and use young performers. His failure is a measure of the gulf that separates 1950s and 1960s conceptions of cinema from the studio era of the war and immediate prewar years. He was, however, the epitome of this French studio style, its unquestioned master, even if—unlike Renoir—he was unable to transcend its limitations. While future critics are unlikely to find much to salvage from the latter part of his career, films like Drole de drame and Quai des brumes, Le Jour se lève and Les Enfants du paradis, remain rich and complex monuments to a decade of filmmaking that will reward fresh and unbiased critical attention.