PARIS — The great period of French films was 1936-45 according to director Marcel Carne, whose finest works, not coincidentally, span those years: "Drole de Drame," "Hotel du Nord," "Quai des Brumes," "Le Jour se Leve," "Les Visiteurs du Soir" and a film that is on many people's Top 10 lists, "Les Enfants du Paradis."
The last major survivor of his generation, Carne, who won't reveal his age but is about 80, is plump, prickly and, to his mind, insufficiently appreciated in France, although he's covered with honors, including the rosette of Commandeur of the Legion d'Honneur and a newly released film of homage, "Marcel Carne, l'Homme & la Camera."
The film celebrates Carne's 50 years of film making and, while grateful, Carne thinks it would have been better had he given its veteran director, Christian-Jacque, a hand.
In speaking of the old days, Carne is critical of other directors with the exception of his mentor, Jacques Feyder, and the now-forgotten Jean Gremillon (1902-59).
"Jean Renoir always spoke ill of me, I think he was jealous. Then there was Rene Clair, but I never got along with him and his films have aged badly. I thought Gremillon's films very fine, but the public didn't like them."
Carne, a painstaking and expert craftsman, says he got his taste for hard work from his father, a Paris cabinetmaker. After a year studying his father's craft, young Marcel, dapper in spats and slicked-back hair, alighted briefly in the business world before talking himself into a vague assistantship with Jacques Feyder, whose wife, the fine actress Francoise Rosay, kindly starred in Carne's first feature film, "Jenny."
That was in 1936, and the screenwriter of "Jenny," the poet Jacques Prevert, collaborated on most of Carne's films for the next 30 years. The decline in Carne's work is usually traced back to the end of their collaboration after a flop called "Les Portes de la Nuit" in 1946. Carne understandably bridles at Prevert's being given too much importance, just as, since he continued to direct feature films until 1973, he does not like it thought that his career ended with "Les Enfants du Paradis" in 1945.
He feels there was a distinct plot to bring him down, a cabale he calls it, and that it was led by the nouvelle vague .
"They were critics before they became directors and they systematically destroyed everyone who came before them in order to take their place. They were little arrivistes , Truffaut and Godard, people who wanted to arrive and who destroyed others to do so. Chabrol, too." The atmosphere was not lightened when Carne was quoted in Le Figaro as calling the nouvelle vague "congenitally impotent." Carne says he said no such thing.
Ironically, he was himself a one-man nouvelle vague in his time. His first film was a short called "Nogent, Eldorado du Dimanche," which was cinema verite before the word existed. When he began making features, French film was all tinsel. "Then I came along," he says, "with my fog and lamp posts and streets glistening with rain." He is talking about the extraordinarily atmospheric "Quai des Brumes," with Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin (1938). From then on, he was dogged with the label poetic realism, a term he does not like, preferring fantastique sociale (social fantasy).
"Hotel du Nord," which Prevert did not write, gave new resonance to the word atmosphere as uttered by Arletty, the great actress who is Carne's favorite.
"I never use the word atmosphere ," Arletty writes in her memoirs, "for it belongs now to the public."
The dingy Hotel du Nord has been preserved as a monument although the Canal St. Martin area of Paris is newly gentrified. In fact, Carne did most of his shooting in studios.
"The equipment was so heavy you couldn't even film in a hotel room. If the nouvelle vague made the cinema more mobile, the merit belongs not to them but to the engineers who came out with lightweight equipment and more sensitive film. If they'd had the material I had to work with, they would never have been able to use natural decors."
If they were studio-bound, Carne's classic films had a reality and fatalism that reflected the mood of the time.
"One felt it was the end of something, it was a melancholy time. In 1936, the Front Populaire gave great hope, but one knew quite well that the Spanish war was the start of the world war. To make happy films in those days? No, I think one has to let the climate of the time come through."
The day after the invasion of Poland in 1939, a government-inspired article came out headlined, "Attention, producers! Make films that are healthy and optimistic." Carne and Renoir, it was warned, would have to change their style and become happy and light.