- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

Many standard reference works cite Aug. 18, 1909, as the birthdate of the famous French movie director Marcel Carne. Evidently, he had succeeded in fudging the date by three years, making it feasible for centennial planners to extend the eventual remembrances from 2006 to the present.

The actual date is better for rounding off the life, since Mr. Carne died in October 1996 at age 90, but the blown date will suffice for a glance at the Carne heritage available to American admirers on home video.

Mr. Carne was the son of a Parisian cabinetmaker, widowed when Marcel was 5. An early journalistic enthusiasm for the movies led to work as an assistant for Rene Clair on “Under the Roofs of Paris” and Jacques Feyder on “Carnival in Flanders.” Mr. Carne was a shade less precocious than it once appeared when he made his directing debut in 1936 with a tearjerker about mother love, “Jenny,” which starred Francoise Rosay, the wife of Mr. Feyder and perhaps something of a surrogate maternal figure for the aspiring Mr. Carne.

“Jenny,” which also began the director’s extended collaboration with a charismatic screenwriter, Jacques Prevert, remains unavailable in the U.S., although it sounds like a savory French companion piece for “Imitation of Life” or “Stella Dallas.” Kino Video was alert enough to revive “Drole de Drame,” or “Bizarre, Bizarre,” two years ago in an attractive DVD edition. This acquisition facilitates fresh appreciation for the second Carne feature, a virtuoso exercise in multiple variations of farce: drawing room, homicidal, romantic, screwball, cross-cultural.

An almost absurdly stellar French cast — Miss Rosay, Michel Simon, Louis Jouvet, Jean-Louis Barrault, Jean-Pierre Aumont — masquerades as addlepated English characters (the source material is a Victorian comic novel from a once popular and prolific humorist, J. Storer Houston) and begs the afterthought, what prevented the Prevert-Carne team from echoing this form of playfulness in subsequent pictures? One answer is that the movie wasn’t a hit with the French public right away. It did rally scattered and then enduring esteem around the world and remains a touchstone with moviegoers who cherish terminally clever and stylized nonsense.

The other answer is that portents of war and then the German invasion and occupation shifted the filmmakers’ preoccupations in a somber and even despairing direction. “Le Quai des Brumes” (“Port of Shadows”), a Criterion Collection release, became the breakthrough Carne-Prevert hit in 1938.

A fatalistic romantic melodrama, contrived around the instant affinity between Jean Gabin as an army deserter and Michele Morgan as a smoldering waif, the movie seems to embody the term “film noir” in retrospect. Reinforced by a fog-shrouded, ominous pictorial atmosphere, it confirms an ongoing sense of melancholy and foreboding.

The team refined this stylistic tendency in their 1939 collaboration, “Le Jour se leve,” which also starred Mr. Gabin as a doomed protagonist, introduced in a sudden act of murder and then clarified in flashbacks as the susceptible pawn of a diabolically suicidal adversary, portrayed by Jules Berry. A powerfully insinuating character actor, Mr. Berry was next recruited to play Satan himself in the initial Carne-Prevert movie of the war years, “Les Visiteurs du soir,” (“The Devil’s Envoys”). Unfortunately, neither of these classics has been restored to DVD availability.

An improbable, austerely prestigious success when new in the winter of 1942-43, “Envoys” was followed by an even more ambitious costume spectacle, “Children of Paradise,” which opened in Paris in March 1945, shortly before the end of the war in Europe. It went on to become a great international success, despite the trouble it caused for director Carne and leading lady Arletty when accused of collaboration by postwar tribunals intent on punishing selected scapegoats.

“Children of Paradise” has received the deluxe treatment from Criterion, but there’s not much reason to deny a decent place in the inventory to “Envoys,” which found Mr. Prevert meditating in a similar vein about romantic longing, loss and devotion and Mr. Carne in command of a pictorial style that ranges from the somnambulant to the impassioned within a medieval setting.

There was one final Prevert-Carne film in the immediate aftermath of World War II, “Les Portes de la nuit,” an early starring vehicle for Yves Montand that evidently echoed the characteristic melancholy of its predecessors — and paid the price, box-office failure. The postwar public seemed to crave something else. Who knows? That might have been the opportune moment to recapture the giddy sophistication of “Bizarre, Bizarre.”

Kino recently acquired one of the Carne movies of the 1950s, “Therese Raquin,” an updated adaptation of the Emile Zola novel that co-stars Simone Signoret and Raf Vallone as doomed lovers. Set in Lyons, it’s an eminently watchable suspense thriller, with sparing but brilliantly effective outbursts of violence and memorable supporting performances from the character actress Sylvie as a contemptuous mother-in-law and newcomer Roland Lesaffre as a greedy young interloper. His character was invented for the movie and seems a useful variation on the deus ex machina: the blackmailer ex machina.

Although Marcel Carne fended off retirement until he was about 70, he outlived his most famous pictures, released between 1937 and 1945, by half a century. That’s an extended aftermath. It’s not at all certain that this allotment was a blessing, allowing the filmmaker ample opportunity to enjoy adequate recognition from new generations of colleagues and moviegoers. His authoritative American biographer, Edward Baron Turk, suggests a brooding, inconsolable outlook persisted into advanced age, with Mr. Carne inclined to think of himself as an underappreciated outcast, especially within the French film industry, whether active or retired.

That dispute seems skippable from an American perspective. But with a Carne centennial either approaching or three years beyond its due date, it would be gratifying to find the entire Carne-Prevert inventory available for home viewing.

• Gary Arnold can be reached at garnold@washingtontimes.com.

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