Marcel Carné (1906-1996)

Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929)

Marcel Carné, (born August 18, 1906, Paris, France—died October 31, 1996, Clamart, near Paris), motion-picture director noted for the poetic realism of his pessimistic dramas. He led the French cinema revival of the late 1930s.

After holding various jobs, Carné joined the director Jacques Feyder as an assistant in 1928, and he also assisted René Clair on the popular comedy Sous les toits de Paris (1930; “Under the Roofs of Paris”). Carné’s first picture was a short documentary, Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929; Nogent, Sunday’s Eldorado). Later the success of his film Jenny (1936) ensured his position as a leading director.

The screenplay for Jenny was by the poet Jacques Prévert, who would write the scripts for all but one of Carné’s finest films. Carné’s next picture, the comic crime fantasy Drôle de drame (1937; Bizarre, Bizarre), had sets designed by Alexandre Trauner, and both he and the composer Joseph Kosma also became regular collaborators on Carné’s films. Quai des brumes (1938; Port of Shadows) and Le Jour se lève (1939; Daybreak) established Carné as the preeminent director of the revival. In these films, whose fatalism was typical of the French cinema of the late 1930s, a pair of lovers find a few brief moments of happiness in a gloomy, mist-shrouded world of violence and hopelessness. The actor Jean Gabin became famous for his roles as the doomed hero in these films.

During World War II, when it was impossible to deal effectively with contemporary subjects under the German occupation, Carné made two important period films. Les Visiteurs du soir (1942; The Devil’s Envoys), a costume drama that combines spectacle with romantic passion, is photographed with the lyricism and flowing smoothness characteristic of all Carné’s films. Les Enfants du paradis (1945; Children of Paradise), a fictionalized portrait of the mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau, paints a rich and powerfully evocative picture of 19th-century French theatrical society and is regarded as Carné’s masterpiece.

Carné continued to make films into the 1970s but with declining popular success. Les Portes de la nuit (1946; Gates of Night) was his last collaboration with Prévert, and his subsequent films, such as Thérèse Raquin (1953) and Les Tricheurs (1958; The Cheaters), rarely approach the quality of his best work. He was gradually reduced to a peripheral figure on the French film scene as a result of changing tastes and attitudes. The freedom and spontaneity of the New Wave cinema in the early 1960s made his own carefully scripted and rehearsed films seem cold and old-fashioned. Les Enfants du paradis, however, is still one of the most admired of all French motion pictures. He attempted to make another film in 1992, based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Mouche,” but he fell ill and it was not seen through to completion. In 1989 he received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for theatre/film.