Obituary: Marcel Carne
Friday 01 November 1996
During the Fifties the revisionist young iconoclasts of the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema (who were later to become the leading film-makers of the New Wave) claimed that these had been the creations less of Carne himself than of his scenarist, the poet of populist Surrealism, Jacques Prevert. That they were not truly realised films d'auteur, the inner visions of an artist transferred directly on to celluloid, but mere illustrations, however brilliant, of another man's scripts. That the iconography of "poetic realism" - a pungent iconography of (studio-recreated) working-class neighbourhoods, of sad rainswept cobblestones, of leather-coated, cloche-hatted "ladies of the night", of deserters, Legionnaires and petty criminals, of the inarticulate amour fou of the proletariat - was essentially a middle-class mystification, synthetic and depoliticised.
And when the polemic surrounding his career finally ebbed into silence and indifference, instead of emerging afresh from the Purgatory to which he had been unceremoniously consigned, Carne vanished into a limbo of almost total neglect.
Perhaps the easiest manner of judging whether the indictment was unjust or not is to ask oneself what it is one remembers from the most characteristic of his films. From Quai des brumes (1938), for instance, one remembers Prevert's dialogue for Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan - Gabin: "Where are you going?" Morgan: "I don't know." Gabin: "Ah, I'm going your way . . ." - but also Carne's indelible image of Morgan in her ethereal white cellophane raincoat framed against the window of a cafe. From Les Portes de la nuit (1946) one remembers Carne's meticulous reconstruction of the Paris Metro in which practically all of the action takes place, but also the nihilistic cynicism of another Prevertian exchange (between Pierre Brasseur and a passerby): "What's happening?" "Oh, nothing. A woman drowning." From the early Jenny (1936) one remembers the graceful nonchalance with which a gentleman removes his monocle to kiss a young woman on the cheek, and from Drole de drame, a Gallic "Ealing comedy" made in 1937, Louis Jouvet's much-anthologised line: "Bizarre? Moi j'ai dit `bizarre'? Comme c'est bizarre!" One remembers too, from Jenny, Jean-Louis Barrault as a dandified hunchback who cannot bear to see a woman shed tears because no woman has ever shed tears for him and, from Les Visiteurs du soir, a medieval fantasy made in 1942, Arletty, incomparably chic in doublet and hose, drawling in her earthy nasal whinny: "Dia-a-a-able . . . !" One remembers the tiny street- corner hotel in which a suicidal Gabin holes up during Le Jour se leve (1939) and the exuberantly, unrepentantly corrupt Jules Berry with his troupe of performing dogs from the same film. One remembers the naggingly plaintive soundtrack scores of Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma, and the flaccid Gauloises Bleues dangling from world-weary faces, faces whose lines can be read like those of a hand, and one remembers above all the astonishing number of Carne's and Prevert's characters who have cause, at one moment or another of the narrative, to sigh "C'est drole la vie!"
These films then, impinge on our consciousness above all as memories, memories often as potent and unshakable as those of our own private lives; and if, as we know, memory sometimes plays tricks, if the original films, regarded strictly as works of art, not as repositories of unforgettable moments, are probably rather less innovatory than many less familiar works of the same period, it is, after all, the prerogative of memory to be unfairly partisan. In any case, when the mythology of a film-maker has so seamlessly coincided with the mythology of a whole nation, it would be absurd to attribute the responsibility solely to the work of a scriptwriter.
Indeed, where Carne's most cherished film is concerned, not even his detractors have been prepared to belittle the director's contribution. Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) might perhaps be described as the French Gone With The Wind, except that it happens to be an infinitely superior work. Filmed during the Occupation under extremely hazardous conditions and set in Paris's notorious "Boulevard du Crime" of the 1840s, Les Enfants is a melodrama of unsurpassed sumptuousness, recounting the futile passion of the mime Deburau for the courtesan Garance (Barrault and Arletty giving two of the most brilliant performances in cinema history) against a sweeping, panoramic vision of Parisian society, its monde and its demi-monde, the world of the theatre and the underworld of crime. No one has ever grudged this film its undying reputation.
Of Carne's postwar output, however, it would be difficult to offer much of a defence, whether of the dated, backward-looking romanticism of Juliette ou la Cle des songes (1951) or his doomed endeavour to keep abreast of the times with two grotesquely implausible studies of disaffected youth, Terrain vague (1960) and Les Jeunes Loups (1968). 1968! It seems inconceivable that the man who directed Arletty when she uttered her famous "Atmosphere, atmosphere . . . !" on the Canal Saint-Martin bridge in Hotel du Nord (1938) could still have been at work 30 years later while Maoist students were manning the barricades along the Boulevard Saint-Michel. C'est drole la vie!
When Marcel Carne embarked on Les Enfants du Paradis in 1943, he and his scriptwriter Jacques Prevert were under instructions from the German Occupation forces to make an "escapist" film, writes Mike Goodridge. It is hard to believe that the lavish work that resulted was made under such oppressive conditions. Only three days after shooting began in Nice, the United States invaded Sicily, thus forcing Carne and his crew to return to Paris. When he returned to Nice in November 1943, he found the set so badly damaged by storms that it had to be completely rebuilt. The Germans were present throughout shooting, in an effort to ensure that every actor and crew member belonged to a collaborationist union; the production designer Alexandre Trauner and the film's composer, Joseph Kosma, were Jewish, so their involvement had to remain secret.
Following the fall of Mussolini, the Nazis exerted further pressure by banning Italo-Franco productions. Shooting was also subject to a 7 o'clock curfew which ruled out night scenes. By the time it was premiered in March 1945, it was the most expensive French film ever made.
Working closely with Trauner, Carne evoked Paris a century earlier when Louis Philippe was on the throne. Its title referred to the working-class poor who sat in the gods of the Theatre des Funambules, loudly shouting their disdain or approval for the plays and entertainments on offer. Many saw it as a thinly veiled celebration of free speech and independence.
"A strange mixture of the beautiful, the esoteric and the downright dull," declared Hollywood trade paper Variety in 1947 when the film was screened in an edited version - cut down from its original 195 minutes to a measly 144.
Now, of course, it is considered one of the greats - at its original length - and is frequently cited on critics' lists as one of the best films of all time. As early as 1952, it was ranked 14th best film ever in a survey conducted among film directors by the Festival Mondial Du Film et des Beaux Arts de Belgique. But its enduring popular appeal lies not as a cerebral study of theatre but in its central romance. A 1993 revival at a handful of cinemas across Britain managed to gross an impressive pounds 114,000 - more than most new foreign language releases.
Marcel Carne, film director: born Paris 18 August 1906; died Paris 31 October 1996.
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