Writer. Nationality: French. Born: Jacques Henri Marie Prévert in Neuilly-sur-Seine, 4 February 1900. Military Service: 1920–21. Family: Brother of the director Pierre Prévert. Married 1) Simone Dienne, 1925; 2) Janine Tricotet, 1947. Career: 1915–20—worked in Bon Marché and other stores in Paris; worked for Argus de la Presse, 1921, and for the publicity agency Damour, 1930; author of plays, verse, songs, and, from 1932, film scripts; 1936—began ten-year collaboration with the director Marcel Carné. Died: In Omonvillela-Petite, 11 April 1977.
Films as Writer:
L'Affaire est dans le sac (It's in the Bag) (P. Prévert) (+ ro); Ténériffe (Y. Allégret—short)
Ciboulette (Autant-Lara); Comme une carpe (Heyman—short)
L'Hotel du libre échange (M. Allégret)
Un Oiseau rare (Pottier)
My Partner Mr. Davis (The Mysterious Mr. Davis) (Autant-Lara); Jeunesse d'abord (Stelli); Jenny (Carné); Mantonnet (Sti); Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange) (Renoir)
Drôle de drame (Bizarre Bizarre) (Carné)
Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) (Carné); Ernest le rebelle (C'était moi) (Christian-Jaque)
Le Jour se lève (Daybreak) (Carné)
Remorques (Stormy Waters) (Grémillon); Le Soleil a toujours raison (Billon)
Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoys) (Carné)
Lumière d'été (Grémillon); Adieu Leonard (P. Prévert)
Sortiléges (The Bellman) (Christian-Jaque)
Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) (Carné)
Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night) (Carné); Aubervilliers (Lotar—short); Voyage-Surprise (P. Prévert); Une Partie de campagne (Renoir)
L'Arche de Noé (Jacques)
Le Petit Soldat (Grimault—anim)
Les Amants de Vérone (The Lovers of Verona) (Cayatte)
"La Statuette" and "Le Violon" eps. of Souvenirs perdus (Christian-Jaque)
Bim, le petit âne (Lamorisse—short) (commentary)
Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) (DeLannoy)
La Faim du monde (Grimault—anim); Paris mange son pain (P. Prévert—short)
Paris la belle (P. Prévert—revised version of short produced 1928)
Les Primitifs du XIII (Bilbeaud—short)
Les Amours célèbres (Boisrond)
Le Petit Claus et le grand Claus (P. Prévert)
La Maison du passeur (P. Prévert)
A la belle étoile (P. Prévert)
Le Roi et l'oiseau (The King and the Bird) (Grimault—incorporates footage from repudiated film La Bergère et le ramoneur, 1952)
By PRÉVERT: poetry—
Paroles, Paris, 1945, as Selections from Paroles, San Francisco, 1958.
With André Verdet, Histoires, Paris, 1946.
C'est à Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Paris, 1949.
Spectacle, Paris, 1951.
La Pluie et le beau temps, Paris, 1955.
Lumières d'hommes, Paris, 1955.
Images, Paris, 1957.
Poèmes, edited by J.H. Douglas and D.J. Girard, 1961.
Fatras, Paris, 1965.
Blood and Feathers: Selected Poems of Jacques Prévert, translated by Harriet Zinnes, Mount Kisco, NY, Moyer Bell, 1993.
By PRÉVERT: other books—
Le Rendez-vous (ballet), 1945.
With André Verdet and André Virel, Le Cheval de Troie, Paris, 1946.
Le Petit Lion, Paris, 1947.
Contes pour enfants pas sages, Paris, 1947.
Les Visiteurs du soir (script), Paris, 1947.
Les Amants de Verone (script), Paris, 1948.
Des Bêtes, Paris, 1950.
Charmes de Londres, Paris, 1952.
Grand bal de printemps, Paris, 1952.
Lettre des îles Baladar, Paris, 1952.
L'Opéra de la lune, Paris, 1952.
Miró, Paris, 1956.
Bim, le petit âne, Paris, 1951, as Bim, the Little Donkey, London, 1957.
Portrait de Picasso, Paris, 1959.
Couleur de Paris, Paris, 1961, as Paris in Colour, London, 1962.
Diurnes, Paris, 1962.
Histoires, et d'autre histoires, Paris, 1963.
Les Chiens ont soif, Paris, 1964.
Le Jour se lève (script) in Avant-Scène (Paris), November 1965,
translated as Le Jour se lève, New York, 1970.
Arbres, Paris, 1968.
Children of Paradise (script), New York, 1968, as Les Enfants du paradis, London, 1968.
Varengeville, Paris, 1968.
Imaginaires, Paris, 1970.
Choses et autres, Paris, 1972.
With André Pozner, Hebdomadaires (interviews), Paris, 1972, revised edition 1982.
Drôle de drame (script), Paris, 1974.
Le Quai des brumes (script) in Avant-Scène (Paris), 15 October 1979.
On PRÉVERT: books—
Amengual, Barthélémy, Prévert, du cinéma, Algiers, 1952.
Queval, Jean, Jacques Prévert, Paris, 1955.
Guillot, Gérard, (ed.), Les Préverts, Paris, 1966.
Baker, William E., Jacques Prévert, 1967.
Greet, Anne Hyde, Jacques Prévert's Word Games, 1968.
Bergens, Andrée, Jacques Prévert, Paris, 1969.
Fauré, Michel, Le Groupe Octobre, Paris, 1977.
Rachline, Michel, Jacques Prévert, Paris, 1981.
Blakeway, Claire, Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema, London, 1990.
Gilson, René, Les Mots et merveilles, Jacques Prévert, Paris, 1990 + filmo.
Sieber, Anja, Vom Hohn zur Angst: Die Sozialkritik Jacques Préverts in den Filmen von Marcel Carne, Rodenbach, Avinus Verlag, 1993.
Andry, Marc, Jacques Prévert, Paris, Editions de Fallois, 1994 + filmo.
Gasiglia-Laster, Daniele, Jacques Prévert: Celui qui rouge de coeur, Paris, Seguier, 1994.
On PRÉVERT: articles—
Leenhardt, Roger, in Fontaine (Paris), May 1945.
Rougeuil, J., and M. Sergines, "Les Préverts," in Ecran (Paris), 25 September 1946.
Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1946–47.
Laroche, Pierre, Jean-Paul Le Chanois, and Georges Sadoul, in Ciné-Club (Paris), January 1949.
Queval, Jean, in Mercure de France (Paris), 1 June 1949.
Nadal, Pierre, "Carné, Prévert, et le reportage," in Raccords (Paris), April 1950.
Cinémonde (Paris), 7 August 1953.
Chaboud, Charles, in Image et Son (Paris), October-November 1956.
Brunelin, André G., in Cinéma (Paris), November 1959.
Bazin, André, "Le Jour se lève," in Regards neufs sur le cinéma, Paris, 1963.
Tabes, René, in Télé-Revue (Paris), 20 October 1963.
"Les Frères Prévert Issue" of Image et Son (Paris), December 1965.
Durgnat, Raymond, in Films and Filming (London), July 1969.
Cinéma (Paris), June 1977.
Film Comment (New York), November-December 1981.
"Prévert Issue" of Filmkritik (Munich), August 1983.
Brunius, Jacques, in En marge du cinéma française, Lausanne, 1987.
Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1988.
Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1991.
Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1991.
Cineforum, vol. 32, no. 318, 1992.
Curchod, Olivier, and others, "Partie de campagne de Jean Renoir," in Positif (Paris), February 1995.
Télérama (Paris), 21 February 1996.
French Review, October 1997.
* * *
For convinced auteurists, Jacques Prévert comes as something of a stumbling block. With Prévert as scriptwriter, Marcel Carné directed several supreme classics of French cinema; when the two split up, Carné sank into obscure mediocrity. A bas Carné, then, cold and formal craftsman helplessly limited by his material, and vive Prévert, true begetter of Le Jour se lève and Les Enfants du paradis? And yet—if Prévert scripted Carné's greatest successes, he also wrote Les Portes de la nuit, the disastrous postwar flop from which neither of their careers ever recovered. And if Carné minus Prévert looks flat and uninspired, Prévert's scripts for other directors—with one or two exceptions—rarely attained the level of his best work with Carné.
Barthélémy Amengual split Prévert the scriptwriter into three periods: there was Prévert rosse (a tough word to translate—"offensive" or "bloody-minded" might get near it), Prévert noir, and Prévert rose. Prévert rosse was the subversive, tossing surrealist firecrackers under the wheels of bourgeois ceremonial. Prévert noir was the poet of melancholy, the fatalist whose doomed lovers succumbed to the machinations of Destiny. And Prévert rose purveyed charming, sentimental fables in which oppression is overthrown by the forces of love and good-hearted innocence. The Carné films were evidently the work of Prévert noir—with the exception of Drôle de drame, seen by Amengual as the last fling of Prévert rosse.
Prévert's roots were deep in the interwar leftist avant-garde. He was a member of the Surrealist group—until expelled by Breton for irreverence—and of the agit-prop theatre Groupe Octobre. His Marxism, though, owed nearly as much to Groucho as to Karl. The same delight in puns and wordplay, in jokes and fantasy deployed in the cause of class warfare which fuelled his poetry, bubbles through the early films—Drôle de drame, far more Prévert than Carné, and L'Affaire est dans le sac, first of the three directed by his brother Pierre, and Prévert's own favourite of all his films.
For his only completed feature with Renoir, Prévert rechanneled his exuberance into a more controlled political stance. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, witty, touching, and bright with the new-found hope of the Front Populaire, shows both Renoir and Prévert operating near the top of their form, and arouses regret that two men with so much in common worked together so little. Too much in common, perhaps. "It's wonderful, but it's left me nothing to do," commented Renoir on Prévert's script for Une Partie de campagne—which therefore remained the most perfect of all incomplete movies.
The necessary creative tension seems to have been more fruitfully present in the relationship between Prévert and Carné, spurring them both into producing their finest work. In Quai des brumes, Le Jour se lève, Les Visiteurs du soir and Les Enfants du paradis, the smoky, shimmering malaise and colloquial lyricism of Prévert's scripts meld with Carné's cool technique and superb handling of actors into some of the richest masterpieces of romantic cinema. Their bittersweet fatalism, distillation of the political mood of the period, has sometimes been seen as imposed on Prévert by Carné's pessimism. "Carné never really believed in happiness," Ivo Jarosy asserted; "Prévert believed in nothing else." An oversimplification, perhaps. But certainly the outcome of the Prévertian eternal triangle—a man, a woman, and Fate—tended to be less invariably doom-laden in the hands of other directors, as for example Grémillon (Remorques, Lumière d'été).
Even at his darkest, though, Prévert never indulged in the unrelieved, misanthropic pessimism that often distorted the work of Duvivier or Clouzot. For him the power of friendship, of art, above all of love could always transcend the forces of oppression, and even ultimately death. This Tristan-and-Isolde view of love as transfiguring, eternal, and self-justifying can slide at times perilously close to mush, as in Visiteurs du soir's closing image of the entwined statues whose hearts still beat, or in Baptiste's statement (Les Enfants du paradis), "If all the people who live together loved each other, the earth would shine like the sun." It can also lead into some fairly questionable morality. "Everything is allowed to those who love each other"—a sentiment that Penn's Bonnie and Clyde ("They're young, they're in love, and they kill people") would have wholeheartedly applauded.
Prévert's greatest achievement as a scriptwriter lies in his transmutation of ordinary, banal speech into a lyrical street poetry, reinvesting clichés with their original emotional truth. His characters speak, not perhaps as the ordinary people of Paris ever do speak, but how they might wish to at their most eloquent. Through subtleties of rhythm, wordplay, and repetition, commonplaces acquire unsuspected resonance. Quotation is problematic, since so much depends on inflection and context, and translation tends to flatten the lines back into banality; but something of the fury of the beleaguered Gabin haranguing the crowd below his window in Le Jour se lève still comes through: "Mais oui, je suis un assassin! Mais les assassins, ça courent les rues! Il y en a partout! Partout! Tout le monde tue! Tout le monde tue un petit peu, seulement on tue à douceur, alors ça ne se voit pas!" [That's right, I'm a murderer! But the streets are running with murderers! They're everywhere! Everybody kills—only quietly, bit by bit, so it doesn't show!] Or, from the same film, Arletty describing Jules Berry: "C'est formidable ce qu'il cause bien, cet homme-là. Il a un façon de remuer les mains en parlant—souvent les mots, vous croiriez qu'il les sort de ses manches." [It's wonderful how he can talk, that man. He's got a way of moving his hands—you'd think he had the words hidden up his sleeves.] And immediately the image comes of Berry (whom we have just met on stage putting trained dogs through their paces) as a conjuror, or a card sharp, fluently dealing out words like marked cards off a crooked deck.
For some ten years, from 1935 to 1945, Prévert was probably the greatest single influence on French cinema. Not everyone has thought it an influence for good. Claude Mauriac referred disparagingly to "le virus Prévert," and Truffaut, in his famous Cahiers onslaught on the "tradition de qualité," wrote "one takes to regretting Prévert's scenarios. He believed in the Devil, thus in God. . . ." Prévert can be—and has been—faulted for an overschematic morality, for characters neatly divided into executioners or victims, for reflex anticlericalism and a sentimental idealization of the working class, for theatricality, for the moments when the streetwise poetics of his dialogue topple into pretension or bathos. None of these charges is without substance. Yet they diminish when set against his qualities: the dramatic vigour, the richness of narrative texture, the warmth and compassion of his characterisation, the brilliance and humour of his dialogue, lyricism flowering from the disregarded rubbish-tips of everyday speech. Few screenwriters have served their actors better; to have furnished Gabin, Arletty, Barrault, and Jules Berry with their finest screen roles is a formidable achievement. If it is true, as Jacques Brunius attested, that Prévert's greatest scenarios remained unfilmed, "imprisoned in drawers," the loss is considerable.
With the publication of his book Paroles in 1945, Jacques Prévert (1900–1977) became France's most popular poet of the twentieth century. He was also an innovative screenwriter who helped create some of the most influential French films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the beloved Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). His satirical attacks on rigid French education and the Catholic Church and other institutions of authority expressed France's post-war disillusionment and defiant spirit.
Prévert the Young Rebel
Prévert was born on Feburary 4, 1900, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, near Paris. He grew up in a middle class family, the middle of three sons, and enjoyed a mostly happy childhood. His autobiographical prose poem, "Enfance" (Childhood), is filled with pleasant memories of street life in his hometown, including street performers such as singers and clowns. His father worked for the Office Central des Pauvres de Paris (Central Office for the Poor of Paris) and often took his son with him when his work took him to poorer sections of the city. Those experiences gave Prévert a lifelong sympathy with the poor and working class. His father also reviewed plays for local newspapers, and he often took his sons to the theater or the movie house, stimulating their imaginations. Prévert found school rigid and stifling, and he dropped out at 14. He was proud to say that the streets gave him his education.
In 1920 Prévert began his military service, required of all French men. While stationed at Lunéville in eastern France he befriended Yves Tanguy, who would later become a Surrealist painter. In 1921, while stationed in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), he met another friend, Marcel Duhamel. All three were eager to throw off the discipline of the military. Once their service was done, they moved to Paris and threw themselves into a rebellious, bohemian life. They moved to Rue du Château, a street in the artistic Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. Duhamel got a job managing a hotel and supported himself, Prévert, Tanguy, and their girlfriends as they hung out in cafés, went to movies and threw parties full of games of charades.
In 1925 Prévert married a longtime friend, Simone Dienne, and he, Tanguy, and Duhamel were introduced to the young leaders of the Surrealism movement, including the writer Andre Bréton. The Surrealists also found a home and a meeting place on Rue du Château. "The most absolute nonconformity, total irreverence and thorough good humor reigned there," Bréton recalled in his book of interviews, Entretiens, according to Claire Blakeway in her book Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema. "In a corner plastered with cinema posters—of vamps' eyes and pointed pistols—there was a little built-in bar which was always well-stocked." Though Prévert did not become a leading thinker among the Surrealists as his friend Tanguy did, he was an inspiration for his fellow artists. "With his anarchic sense of humor and his lively, nonconformist nature, he imparted great vitality into the movement," Blakeway wrote.
The alliance with the Surrealists lasted until around 1928, when Prévert, Tanguy, and Duhamel had a falling-out with Bréton over his heavy-handed leadership of the movement and moved out of Rue du Château. Prévert began working for an ad agency and writing poetry. His first poems, full of surrealist cleverness, were published in the early 1930s, including his influential and popular "Tentative de description d'un dîner de têtes à Paris-France" (Attempt to Describe a Dinner of Heads in Paris-France), published in Commerce in 1931.
Prévert's left wing politics led him in 1932 to join the workers' theater company Groupe Octobre, which was affiliated with the Communist Party. He wrote plays for the troupe that mixed Surrealist freedom and wordplay with strong political themes. The troupe appeared in the Surrealist film L'Affaire est dans le sac (The Affair Is In the Bag), which Prévert wrote with his brother, Pierre, in 1932. Prévert traveled to Moscow with the Groupe Octobre in 1933 to the International Workers' Theater Olympiad, to premier Prévert's play La Bataille de Fontenoy (The Battle of Fontenoy). He also began writing songs for singers such as Marianne Oswald.
Prévert and Carné
By the mid-1930s, Prévert began developing into a major screenwriter and dialogue writer. He collaborated with Jean Renoir, one of France's leading filmmakers of the 1930s, and the two co-wrote the 1935 film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. He also began working with filmmaker Marcel Carné on the film Jenny. During this time he broke up with his wife, Simone, and soon fell in love with Jacqueline Laurent. In 1936 the Groupe Octobre broke up, unsure of how to react to changes in French and European left-wing politics, and Prévert's major poem "La Crosse en l'air" (The Cross in the Air) was published.
Carné and Prévert became frequent collaborators. Their startling, groundbreaking films of the late 1930s, Drôle de drame (aka Bizarre, Bizarre), Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), and Le Jour se lève (The Day Dawns) established the French film genre of poetic realism, which would heavily influence American film noir. The films shared signature preoccupations of Prévert's, including "a somewhat doom-laden sensibility and a free-flowing romanticism regarding youthful love, especially when contrasting such love with the corruption and cynicism of the world at large," wrote Bruce Eder of allmovie.com.
After Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Prévert moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. He made another film with his brother, Adieu, Leonard, in 1942 and Lumière d'été (Light of Summer) with Jean Grémillon in 1943. Meanwhile, he continued to work with Carné, first on 1942's Les Visiteurs du soir (Evening Visitors). Aware that historical dramas stood a better chance of avoiding the censorship of the German occupying authorities and the Vichy government of southern France, they based their film on a fifteenth-century French legend. Its scenes in which two lovers defy their imprisonment in a castle by imagining themselves elsewhere struck a chord with the French during the Occupation.
Between 1943 and 1945, Carné and Prévert produced their masterpiece, Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). The film was extremely difficult to make, since it involved assembling large crowds for several scenes and since much of it was made during the Occupation. The film, which depicts several street performers in nineteenth-century Paris, is centered on four men in love with the same woman. It was inspired by the nineteenth-century story of a famous mime who killed a man that insulted his girlfriend. Thanks to its evocative depiction of historic Paris, its romantic themes, and the populist, anti-authoritarian themes that surprisingly made it past the censors, it became one of France's most popular and celebrated films of all time.
Prévert the Poet
The peak of Prévert's career came immediately after World War II. In 1945, the same year that Les Enfants du paradis was released, he published his collected poems, Paroles. The book sold more than 500,000 copies, almost unheard of for a book of poems in France. "Prévert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State," wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the introduction to the 1990 edition of Paroles, which he translated into English in 1958. Looking back in 1960, prominent French critic Gaëton Picon called Prévert "the only genuine poet who, at present, has succeeded in reaching beyond the bounds of a more or less specialized public," according to Blakeway's book. The verses in Paroles became even more popular when Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian composer who worked with Carné on his films, set some of them to music. Perhaps the most famous was "Les Feuilles Morts" (Autumn Leaves), which was recorded by Yves Montand and Juliette Gréco, two famed French singers of the post-war era. Montand's version appeared in the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (The Doors of the Night), the last collaboration between Carné and Prévert. He also published Contes pour enfants pas sages (Stories for Children Who Aren't Very Well-Behaved) in 1947.
Prévert's career suffered twin setbacks in 1948. His partnership with Carné fell apart when the film La Fleur de l'âge was cancelled during production. Also, while at the office of Radiodiffusion Nationale in Paris, he fell and was severely injured, spending weeks in a coma. Once he recovered, he moved with his family—his second wife, Janine Loris, was an alumna of the Groupe Octobre—back to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
In 1951 Prévert published Spectacle, a collection of poetry and dramatic works, followed by La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) in 1955. He also worked on films and books for children, such as Bim, le petit âne (Bim the Little Donkey). In 1955 he moved back to Paris. He had become so popular that strangers approached him on the street and quoted lines of his poems to greet him.
American poet Eve Merriam went to visit Prévert in 1959 and spent hours with him talking about poetry and art. Writing in the New Republic, she recalled him as "a short, white-haired man with blue eyes, blunt expressive fingers, cigarette dangling from his lips like a corny Apache dancer. Wearing a blue sweater the color of his eyes, dapper gray flannels, and black leather moccasins newly polished, he looked like a sportive dandy." In 1961, when Serge Gainsbourg, soon to become France's most revered songwriter, wrote the tribute song "La Chanson De Prévert," he went to Prévert's house to seek his blessing and ended up spending a morning drinking champagne with him.
Prévert produced several art collages during the late 1950s and early 1960s. "They were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy," Merriam wrote in the New Republic. They were exhibited in Paris in 1957 and in Antibes in southern France in 1963. He continued to publish books, including Histoires et d'autres histoires (Stories and Other Stories) in 1963 and Choses et autres (Things and Other Things) in 1972.
After a long illness, Prévert died on April 11, 1977, at his home in Omonville-La-Petite, in Normandy, France. That day, Carné (as quoted in the New York Times) called him "the one and only poet of French cinema," whose "humor and poetry succeeded in raising the banal to the summit of art" and whose style reflected "the soul of the people." Prévert wanted to be remembered as a people's poet. A few years before his death, in an interview quoted in Harriet Zinnes's introduction to her book Blood and Feathers, Prévert said, "I was popular even before being fashionable. That's how it was. What gave me pleasure was having readers…. They are the greatest literary critics…. These are the people who know the best literature, those who love it, not the connoisseurs."
Baker, William, Jacques Prévert, Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Blakeway, Claire, Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema, Associated University Presses, 1990.
Prévert, Jacques, Blood and Feathers: Selected Poems of Jacques Prévert, (translated by Harriet Zinnes), Schocken Books, 1988.
Prévert, Jacques, Paroles (translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti), City Lights Books, 1990.
Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Da Capo Press, 2001.
New Republic, July 9 & 16, 1977.
New York Times, April 12, 1977.
"Biography of Jacques Prévert," Hommage à Jacques Prévert, http://www.xtream.online.fr/Prévert (December 20, 2006).
"Jacques Prévert," Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.search.eb.com (December 20, 2006).
"Jacques Prévert: Overview," allmovie.com, http://www.allmovie.com (January 1, 2007).