Obituary: Marcel Carne

It was Marcel Carne's destiny (a word he himself, an indefatigable romancer of fate and its vicissitudes, would not have found too strong) to witness the unity, cohesion and ultimate meaning of his work devastated by the event its ominously pregnant atmosphere had so vividly anticipated - the Second World War. Once, arguably, the most esteemed of all French film-makers, the standard- bearer of the movement known as "poetic realism", the director responsible for having provided published histories of the cinema with a few of their most haunting and haunted stills (which is not, of course, quite the same thing as making great films), he found himself divested after the war of both his talent and his reputation - "disincarnated", as the critic Andre Bazin pertinently and punningly put it. What is more, his increasingly precipitous post-war decline was to be accompanied by a corresponding critical devaluation of his once unassailable pre-war classics.

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!

Gilbert Adair

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: International Customer Service Administrators

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea