Carné, Marcel

   Director and film critic. Marcel Carné was born in Paris, the son of a carpenter. His mother died when he was only five years old, after which time he was mostly left in the care of his grandmother and aunt. It was his father's wish that Carné follow in the family trade, but he had little interest in going that route, as he was much more interested in the cinema, theater, and café-concerts even at a young age. He began work in an insurance office while studying photography, becoming certified by the Arts et Métiers. Through personal connections, Carné was able to obtain work in the film industry. The first major influence on the aspiring director would be the great Jacques Feyder, with whom Carné worked on the film Les Nouveaux messieurs (1929). The same year Carné made his first film, a poetic documentary short titled Eldorado du dimanche. The film caught the attention of René Clair, who invited Carné to come and work with him.
   Clair would be the other great influence on Carné's filmmaking, and Carné's celebrated Réalisme poétique or poetic realism owes a great deal to Clair's own filmmaking style and worldview. Carné worked as Clair's assistant on the classic film Sous les toits de Paris (1930), and the vivid depiction of the Parisian working class found in Clair's film is echoed in many of Carné's own works.
   During the period of his early formation, Carné had also taken up film criticism. He worked as a journalist and critic for Cinémagazine as well as Hebdo Film. He continued this throughout the early part of his career. In 1934, Carné again began working with Feyder and was his assistant on several films, most notably Pension Mimosas (1935) and La Kermesse heroïque (1935).
   Carné's first credited film as director is Jenny (1936). The film, which stars Feyder's wife, Françoise Rozay, is a period melodrama centered on the lives of the working classes and those even lower on the social scale. It has many of the characteristics of what would become Carné's trademark, the focus on the lower classes, the nine-teenth-century backdrop, the varied cast of characters, all either pure good or pure evil, caught in a world that is less good than evil. This was also the beginning of Carné's long and successful collaboration with poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. The film was a commercial success and established Carné as a reputable director who could attract an audience and the Carné/Prévert team as a recipe for popular success and film magic.
   Jenny was followed by Drôle de drame (1936), starring Jean-Pierre Aumont, a bourgeois drama about a family with domestic help issues. This was followed in 1938 by Quai des brumes, the first in a fairly noir trio of films made fairly close together by Carné. It would be followed by Hôtel du nord (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939). All three are considered Carné classics and classics of French cinema as a whole.
   Quai des brumes, which starred Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, and Michel Simon, is a twisted story of the return of Jean, a soldier/deserter, to France (specifically Le Havre) and his love affair with Nelly, a less-than-innocent seventeen-year-old. The film won the Prix Louis-Delluc. Hôtel du nord, which is the first Carné film to star Arletty, is the story of a failed suicide pact between Renée and Pierre. Pierre shoots Renée, then loses his nerve and runs away. The rest of the film centers on the different characters that intersect Renée's life via the hotel. Le Jour se lève, starring Gabin and Arletty, is again a twisted story of love gone wrong. François, a young factory worker, falls in love with Françoise, not realizing she is the protégé of the evil dog trainer, Valentin. The film begins with François murdering Valentin, then flashes back to the events that lead up to it. It is for that reason, perhaps, the bleakest of the three films, since it is clear from the beginning that all ends in tragedy.
   While these films are clearly part of the tradition of poetic realism associated with Carné, a tradition that he did not create so much as refine, they are, as noted, marked by particularly noir characteristics as well. The chiaroscuro lighting is quite evident in all three, as is the presence of what might be seen as a femme fatale. Carné himself intended these noir elements to be clear in these films, seeing part of his own contribution to poetic realism as a sort of fusion between poetry on film and the noir tradition. The films are less tense than a typical noir, and the characters are less clearly types, but the milieu, lighting, and certain elements of the plot clearly reflect that particular influence.
   After Le Jour se lève, Carné was operating fully under the constraints of Nazi Occupation. His next film, Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), would be very different from the three that preceded it. Again starring Arletty opposite Jules Berry, Les Visiteurs du soir is the story of two emissaries sent by the devil to tempt the inhabitants of a medieval baron's court. The film lacks much of what classically defines Carné's early cinema; it is, for example, much less fatalistic in certain respects, and the settings are quite different. Some have explained these differences as the result of the censor, and some as the result of a veiled commentary on the political circumstances in which it was made. Whatever the case, it remains a masterful piece of cinema, although quite different from anything else Carné ever made.
   Following Les Visiteurs du soir, Carné made what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, Les Enfants du paradis (1945). Again starring Arletty, this time with Jean-Louis Barrault and Brasseur, Les Enfants du paradis is the sprawling tale of a group of artists in 1827 Paris. Baptiste, a mime, is in love with Garance, an actress, but the two are kept apart by fate and outside intervention. Apart from setting, this film has a great deal in common with Carné's earlier films. It is much more in keeping in subject, tone, and theme, and it is seen as having brought to perfection the vision of cinema that was developed in those films.
   It would have been difficult under any circumstances for Carné to match the success of Les Enfants du paradis. It was an enormous success and hailed as a classic even when it was released, although some critics would argue that time has not been so kind to it. Nonetheless, nothing could have prepared Carné for the precipitous decline in his career that would come after the war. It is often the case that people today forget Carné made films after the war, and that is as much a statement on the reception of those films as anything else. In fact, he made fourteen, and left one unfinished, but not a single of these would come close to the success of any of his early films.
   In part, Carné had difficulty finding his voice after the war. Poetic realism seemed to have had no place at that point in time. Carné tried to update his vision to fit the times. His 1946 film, Les Portes de la nuit, contains many of the elements of his early films, but was updated to fit the contemporary historical context—it was a failure. He tried his hand at creating a "youth cinema" with films like Les Tricheurs (1958) and Terrain vague (1960) but audiences and critics found something a bit artificial in these films. He tried religious films, such as La Merveilleuse visite (1974) and La Bible (1977), but in 1970s France, in the wake of May 1968, there was not much interest in religion.
   Outside of these failures there was one modest success. Carné's 1953 adaptation of Émile Zola's Thérèse Racquin, which starred Simone Signoret, was not doomed to the utter failure of many of his later films. But for the most part, the postwar era was a footnote to a brilliant filmmaking career that, for all serious film scholars and for audiences alike, more or less ended with Les Enfants du paradis.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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  • Carné, Marcel — (1906 1996)    film director    Born in Paris, Marcel Carné was an assistant to the director rené clair and then, from 1936 to 1946, worked with the writer jacques prévert,who wrote his screenplays. Carné s principal works include: Le Quai des… …   France. A reference guide from Renaissance to the Present

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  • Carné, Marcel — (August 18, 1906, Paris, France October 31, 1996, Clamart, Hauts de Seine, France)    After studying cabinetmaking and briefly working as an insurance employee, he was a photographer and then a film critic publishing articles in Cinémagazine in… …   Encyclopedia of French film directors

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