Marcel Carne’s masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis
, 1943, was a luxury item in a time when such things were a dream, an escapist fantasy to remind France of the spirit that had been crushed out of it during the Occupation. The celebrated crowd scene on the Boulevard du Crime
seemed to capture the essence of Paris as if in a bottle. Other Carne films had the same effect: Le jour se leve
, Drole de drame
and Hôtel du Nord
all seem impregnated with atmosphere, while the image of Michele Morgan framed against the rain-streaked window of a dockside café in Quai des brumes
has become an icon of French life in the same way as have Doisneau’s or Cartier-Bresson’s photographs. Where Godard and Truffaut are emblematic of the Paris of the 1960s, Carne’s cinematic vision of Paris immediately before and during the second world war is unparalleled.
Arguably, the ellipse constitutes the single most basic element of film grammar: the principal difference between filmic time and real time is that, in life, nothing, absolutely nothing, ends up on the cutting-room floor. When one flies across the Atlantic, for example, one is obliged to endure every tedious minute of the seven-hour flight. When, by contrast, a film character makes exactly the same trip, the onscreen flight time is usually reduced to three brief shots: take-off, mid-air and landing. Thus it is possible to conceive of filmic narrative occurring not in some eternal present tense but rather in a recollected past. Films, in short, remember rather than relate their plots, sifting out, as we ourselves do in our memories, all but the crucial scenes.
Marcel Carné’s finest films are like that, repositories of nostalgia. From Quai des brumes, 1938, we remember the iconic image of Michèle Morgan, in her ethereally transparent mackintosh, framed against the rain-streaked window of a dockside café. From Drôle de drame we remember Louis Jouvet’s haughtily bemused self-questioning: ‘Bizarre? Bizarre? Moi j’ai dit bizarre? Comme c’est bizarre!’ From Le Jour se lève we remember the exuberantly corrupt Jules Berry with his troupe of performing dogs and the sordid street-corner hotel in which poor, suicidal Jean Gabin spends his last few tormented hours on earth. From Les Portes de la nuit we remember the cynicism and misogyny of an exchange of dialogue written by Carné’s frequent collaborator, the poet of populist surrealism, Jacques Prévert: ‘What’s happening? Oh, nothing. Just a woman drowning.’ And from virtually all his films we remember the flaccid, cornpaper Gauloises that everyone seemed to smoke and the world-weary faces whose lines could be read like those of a hand.
Carné’s masterpiece, Les Enfants du paradis, which he began shooting in the late summer of 1943, remains a dazzling exception to the rule – everything in it is memorable. It was a luxury item in an epoch when luxury items were no more than a dream, an ‘escapist’ film except that it was from the rigours and horrors of Occupied France that he intended his public to escape. In consequence, its monstrous budget, its spectacular reconstruction of Paris’s nineteenth-century Boulevard du Crime and, maybe most potently, its exaltation of France’s fabled fantasy, charm, wit and chic were in this instance subversive attributes. France is not dead – that was Carné’s message to the world and to his compatriots first of all. Its immemorial stylishness has not been snuffed out by four long years of fear, corruption, torture and death. Paris is burning – burning with all its former fire and passion.
To be sure, there were elements in his films, and especially his postwar films, which have dated badly, but when the mythology of a filmmaker – the celebrated ‘poetic realism’ of petty criminals and deserters, ageing Legionnaires and leather-coated ladies of the night – has so seamlessly coincided with the mythology of an entire nation, as Carné’s did in the troubled interwar years of France’s history, it makes sense to judge these films above all by what François Truffaut called their ‘privileged moments’ – and there were more such privileged moments in Carné’s work than in those of his contemporaries.
As an aspiring filmmaker, Carné rose up through the industry’s ranks. He was, in succession, a journalist and critic; assistant to the cameraman Georges Périnal and the director Jacques Feyder; the creator himself of a delightful documentary, Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche, financed out of his own savings and resembling a photograph by Cartier-Bresson teased into life; a frustrated toiler in advertising; then at last, in 1936, the director of his own first feature, Jenny, starring Feyder’s wife, the actress Françoise Rosay. Jenny instantly established his reputation and, for the following decade, his were perhaps the most esteemed of all French films.
It was after the Second World War that his once unassailable reputation went into disastrous decline, a decline never to be reversed. It was precisely that war that the ominously pregnant atmosphere of his films had anticipated; ironically, its advent, and even more so the social and political optimism characteristic of the late forties, would devastate forever the unity, cohesion and relevance of his cinematic vision. Carné had been the pre-war filmmaker par excellence – postwar France no longer had room for poetic soothsayers.
Nothing, though, will ever diminish the sheer pungency of his 1930s films (in which one can almost smell a pervasive odour of pommes frites, bicycle tyres and human sweat) and it might be best to end on another memory, that of Arletty in Hôtel du Nord, spitting out her now legendary ‘Atmosphère! Atmosphère!’ It was the atmosphere of Paris that, like a great parfumier, Carné contrived to bottle.
Died October 31, Clamart, France, 1996