This early Marcel Carne film is, perhaps, best known for being the directors first collaboration with the great screenwriter, Jacques Prevert. The duo would go on to create at least two other masterworks in Le jour se leve and Le quai des brumes. While this was the first time the two teamed up, it is hardly noticeable. The confidence in Prevert’s writing, and the eloquent, never intrusive way Carne executes said writing is so apparent in all three films (there is another collaboration — Drole de drame, which I haven’t seen yet) that it only takes a few minutes for one to realize that they are watching a Carne-Prevert picture.
This story, based on a novel by Pierre Rocher, depicts a mother-daughter relationship. The emotional bond between Jenny (the mother, played by Francoise Rosay) and Danielle (the daughter, played by Lisette Lanvin) is not so stable. Danielle has been on a tour (she’s a pianist) for the past six years, and she has not spoken with her mother within that time frame. Meanwhile, in a move unknown to her daughter, Jenny has taken up a career at a local night club as something of a bar hostess, think Hideko Takamine in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. There are some melodramatic events, such as the two women becoming interested in the same man (something that anticipates Julien Duvivier’s Voici le temps des assassins by exactly twenty years) but for the most part, things are played out on a very subtle and mature level.
Carne’s ever so impressive camera movements do help downplay this drama, but I think most of this should credited to the performer. Lisette Lanvin, whose most famous role is in Sacha Guitry’s Pearls of a Crown, is excellent as Jenny’s daughter. The opening sequence, in which Danielle breaks off an engagement to a gentleman we know nothing about is heartbreaking in its realism and it gives the narrative a starting point that has to slowly crawl into the main frame of the narrative.
Following this break-up, Danielle returns home from London with hopes of reconnecting with her mother. Things go smoothly, as Jenny’s balances her daughters needs with her secret occupation, but of course, no one can expect a lie to ever last very long. It is worth mentioning here that the club Jenny works at was once a house where she brought up her daughter. When Jenny’s patrons wave to her in the street and reference the club’s address, Danielle begins to develop some suspicions.
Acting on said suspicions, Danielle decides to visit a local club advertised in a city paper. She asks for Jenny, the nickname her mother is addressed by on the street (as opposed to Jeanne, what Danielle calls her) but while she waits, a sad, pathetic, yet extremely wealthy man approaches her and clumsily begins to seduce her. Like many of the male peripheral characters in Carne’s work, this man is part of a not so flattering portrait of male egoism. The central male characters like Lucien, the love interest of both mother and daughter, and Benoit (played by Charles Varnel last seen in Duvivier’s They Were Five), a manipulative man infatuated with Jenny, are portrayed in a much more positive light.
Lucien, played by Albert Prejean (who can be seen in some of Rene Clair’s earliest work as well as the French version of The Three Penny Opera) is a character whose importance is romanticized a great deal. No doubt, he is seen as something of a hero, but a hero that still has flaws. Benoit, on the other hand, can easily be interpreted as the bad guy and yet he is viewed with such respect. His actions are seldom noble, but it is not difficult to see why he is such a scheming fellow. Varnel’s character is a “fancy/wealthy fat cat” — a type of stock character usually intended to provide an audience the opportunity to laugh at the hypocrisy and crude nature of the upper class. Benoit, however, is not comic relief.
If it seems like I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in describing the moral compass of the characters, then that’s a credit to Carne’s vision. His portraits of odd, idiosyncratic relationships are always so vivid and rich, one can nearly taste them. Jenny is no exception. While these people are far from saints, they are still “complete” — living, breathing, emotion-filled characters that offer more than just human flesh brought on to carry a narrative. Some are detestable, but I can easily see myself wanting to spend more time in Carne’s world, and I definitely plan to do so.