Three Exercises in Symmetry: Marcel Carné and Filmic Formalities

By Dai Vaughan

le-quai-des-brumes-marcel-carne.jpgLe Quai des Brumes, 1938

The beginning and end of Hôtel du Nord, directed by Marcel Carné in 1938, are palindromic. The opening credits, backed by various images of canal activity, are followed by a sidelong shot of a footbridge across which two young lovers are entering frame left. The camera tracks towards them as they descend the steps and then, as they exit frame right, moves under the bridge to pick them up continuing leftwards along the towpath. It settles to hold them briefly in full-shot as they sit down together on a bench before finally tilting up to reveal the frontage and sign of the Hôtel du Nord.

This camera movement has an air of impossibility. Even assuming it is on a crane arm, how does this mechanism manage to duck under the bridge? Since we know that the action in fact took place on a specially-built outdoor set – though one modelled upon an actual Parisian location, and intercut here and there with what are surely genuine canal-side shots – we may assume that only the visible half of the footbridge actually existed. But even to audiences for whom the ‘impossible’ movement would not have signalled the presence of such artifice, it must inevitably have served to confer upon the narrative an element of the magical, of the fabulatory. (It need hardly be pointed out that such a thing would carry no weight in our era of computer-generated imagery which, by making everything possible, has closed the door upon whole areas of signification.)

The final shot finds the two lovers on the same bench in the half-light of dawn. The woman says, ‘Let’s go now. It’s finished.’ The man says, ‘What’s finished?’, and the woman says, ‘L’Hôtel du Nord.’ She may mean their lives’ involvement with this hotel – a failed suicide pact, prison, and other emotional entanglements – or she may mean the film itself. They get up to leave, and the camera repeats the whole opening movement in reverse. Almost the only other line of dialogue in that scene is the first, where the woman glances up at the sky and says, ‘Le jour se lève.’ This was to be, whether Carné then knew it or not, the title of his next film.

hotel-du-nord-marcel-carne.jpgHôtel du Nord, 1939

Hôtel du Nord was preceded by Le Quai des brumes, on which Carné worked with the two people most closely associated with him in the popular mind: writer Jacques Prévert and actor Jean Gabin. Prévert enjoyed some popularity as a poet, and was regarded as a man of the Left, though what he produced was not for the most part poetry of the workbench but poetry of the street, his world the harbour side, the cheap hotel, the restaurant, the flower stall. Hôtel du Nord, though Prévert did not work on it, has its share of odd-balls and alcoholics and general low-lifers, of people who appear briefly in the plot and are then forgotten. But this is nothing by comparison with Le Quai des brumes; and to turn from the one film to the other is to experience the full flavour of the Carné-Prévert partnership. Here pretty well anyone who is not an eccentric is a psychopath; and an early scene in Panama’s bar (if it actually is a bar), where one-by-one seemingly deranged characters accumulate and proceed to talk at cross-purposes, resembles nothing so much as an Absurdist drama of the 1950s. An amiable drunkard, who has guided Gabin to this hovel, makes several further appearances in the film, always in Gabin’s vicinity, without ever quite encountering him again.

Le Quai des Brumes is not palindromic, but it does nevertheless exhibit certain symmetries. In the first sequence Gabin hitches a lift in a lorry; and, as it drives along a misty, tree-lined road, he makes the driver swerve to avoid a dog. Gabin and the driver quarrel, Gabin proceeds on foot and the dog attaches itself to him for the duration of the film. In fact it plays little part in the action; and we may suppose that Prévert has introduced it primarily to undercut the convention - the stereotype of what Auden was to call the ‘doomed tough’. When Gabin is finally killed in the street, the dog, which has been hitched to a pillar in a ship’s cabin, breaks free and runs hell-for-leather down the gangplank. Viewers will naturally assume he is to join his master for a sentimental leave-taking. But no: he is last seen escaping along the tree-lined stretch of road to be absorbed into the mists from whence he first emerged. This marks a formal book-ending of the tale; but we may, if we are so minded, read it in a fatalist sense. There is a moment earlier on - though it does not register as particularly important at the time - when someone says casually to Gabin ‘Is that your dog?’ and he says ‘Yes.’ This may be understood simply as signalling the deserter’s re-integration into ordinary society; but it also, in hindsight, marks his acceptance of whatever destiny the animal may carry.

And there is something else. While seated in the cab of the lorry, Gabin starts talking about how killing is shown in films. At first his manner is jocular, amused; but, as he continues, all in frontal close-up, a subtle change in his expression and tone makes us realise that he is describing his own experience, and that he has in fact killed someone. According to legend, Gabin had it written into his contract that he should die at the end of every film. When, at the end of this one, he is finally gunned down, his death is held in long-shot. There are no close-ups of gory details because we do not need them. They have been supplied already, verbally, in the opening scene.

jour-se-leve-marcel-carne.jpgLe Jour se Lève, 1939

It must be said from the start that Le Jour se Lève, though recognisably belonging to this triad of films, is in a different league from the other two, partly no doubt because it was based on an original screenplay rather than on an adaptation from a novel. The characters are recognisably those of a working class district, quirky but not caricatured; Gabin’s François, is credibly shown sandblasting machine casings in a factory; and the all-pervasive psychosis of the previous films is concentrated in the character of Valentin, portrayed with unnerving conviction by Jules Berry, rival of François for the affections of two women, the worldly Clara and the seemingly innocent Françoise. This is a work in which all the elements – framing, movement, performance, settings, dialogue – support and sustain each other as in a piece of perfect carpentry where every joint fits tight.

François lives on the top floor of an extraordinary narrow, six-storey building which appears to have been left over from the demolition of a boulevard. Here, late one evening, he shoots a man – Valentin, as we will discover. From this beginning we will stay with François throughout his lonely night as the police lay siege to his room and he reflects, in a series of flashbacks, on the events which have led to this outcome. (Such a structure must have seemed very daring at the time, for the opening titles are preceded by a caption card explaining how it is to be understood. This, it is safe to assume, would have been provided at the insistence of the front office.)

Prévert is credited only with the dialogue, the script being by Jacques Viot. But it is difficult not to see his hand in the way Francois’s memories are triggered by the associations of the various objects which surround him. Prévert’s poetry relies greatly upon the melancholy of everyday objects, a melancholy dramatising the frailty of our grip on the world and seemingly enhanced by the simplicity of their utterance (‘...the faint sound of a hard-boiled egg cracked on a tin counter...’); and we may recall, in Le Quai des brumes, as Gabin is killed, the cut back to his valise and artist’s box in the ship’s cabin – the box now survivor of two lives. The tall building comes into its own in an emotional climax when François throws open his window and shouts abuse at the crowd silently waiting below. As he shrieks, ‘Laissez-moi seul!’, there is a dramatic cut to long-shot where he is seen isolated far above street level. The crowd shout back affirming their sympathy and support, saying he may get off lightly if he gives himself up. But it is too late. His life has been shattered.

hotel-du-nord-marcel-carne-2.jpgHôtel du Nord, 1939

As the last flash-back ends we see, inside the room, the shooting we heard from outside the door at the start. This, of course, offers another symmetry; but this time, rather than being simply a directorial conceit, it is a symmetry implicit in, and rendered inevitable by, the interleaving of present time and memory. The end comes when memory has caught up. However, there is another and very strange occurrence, a little over half way through, which deserves mention. In what I was about to describe as a key scene - except that every scene in Le Jour se Lève somehow qualifies as ‘key’ – a conversation between Valentin and François across a table in a café-chantant, there is a striking moment where the camera crosses the line. What editors call simply ‘the line’ is the imaginary line-of-sight linking two people. If you move to the other side of this, the characters will appear on screen to have exchanged positions. In this instance the effect is masked by a cut-away of a busker seen through the window.

It did occur to me that it might have been a mistake: that perhaps they had shot the sequence over two days and had inadvertently set up the camera in the wrong position on the second day, not noticing the error until they viewed the rushes, and had shot the busker as an afterthought to cover up for it. But closer examination shows that, in the outgoing shot from the initial position, Berry pauses in his speech as if distracted by an off-screen interruption. The somewhat disorienting effect must surely have been planned. While it would be an overstatement to describe this as the hinge of the film, it may certainly be said to mark the point at which François becomes fatally enmeshed in Valentin’s manipulations: the point from which disaster has become unavoidable. Like the less formal moment of Gabin’s acceptance of the dog in Le Quai des brumes, it constitutes a symmetry defined not from the outside but from within.

What, finally, are we to make of these insistent mirrorings, a formalism verging at times upon the playful? Primarily they appear designed to hold their represented world within manageable limits: to provide brackets, perfectly rounded as the halves of an Easter egg, within which can seethe a chaos of loose ends and characters with murky back-stories and motivations scarcely to be guessed at through which, in turn, two people can strive for love not because they are seeking erotic satisfaction, as today understood, but because, like many of us, they are seeking a perfect narrative for their lives. Such a narrative - in this case the more novelettish the better – would move along prescribed contours clean as those of a Modernity which, it was once hoped, might jettison the filth of a deranged past. But by 1939 those hopes had, along with the Popular Front, already expired.

Dai Vaughan is a critic, poet and novelist, whose fictions are published by Quartet and Seren. His film studies are published by the BFI. He is a regular contributor to Vertigo and Artesian. He lives in London.