Marcel Carne is best known for his collaborations with screenwriter Jacques Prevert. By the time the team broke up in 1947 they had forever marked French cinema, leaving behind such undisputed masterpieces as "Le Quai des Brumes" (1938), "Le Jour Se Leve" (1939), "Les Enfants du Paradis" (1945) and "Les Portes de la nuit" (1946). For ten years their work dominated the industry and their style, termed "poetic realism," had an international influence.
After working as an assistant cameraman for Jacques Feyder on "Les Nouveaux Messieurs" (1928), Carne made a short ("Nogent--Eldorado du dimanche" 1929) which so impressed Rene Clair that he hired Carne as his assistant on "Sous les toits de Paris" (1930). Carne then worked as assistant to Feyder on "Pension Mimosas" (1934) and "La Kermesse Heroique" (1935). During this period he also made publicity shorts and wrote film criticism, sometimes under the pseudonym Albert Cranche. Then, thanks to Feyder's intervention, Carne was allowed to direct his first feature, a routine melodrama called "Jenny" (1936), scripted by Jacques Prevert.
A poet whose broad appeal dervied from a unique combination of humor, sentimentality and social satire, Prevert had been associated with the surrealists as well as the Popular Front. In the best studio tradition, he and Carne gathered together a team of professionals, including set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Maurice Jaubert (replaced on his death by Joseph Kosma).
The poetic realist style flowered as French society plunged from the euphoria of the Popular Front to the despair of the Occupation. Typically, Carne-Prevert collaborations were marked by a tension between gritty realism and the suggestion of a metaphysical dimension beyond that represented on the screen. They are noted for their lyrical language and pessimistic atmosphere, for their meticulous recreations of concrete social milieux, and for truly remarkable performances by, among others, Jean Gabin, Arletty, Michele Morgan, Michel Simon and Jules Berry.
Though their films were banned during the Occupation, Carne and Prevert were allowed to continue working together, with the clandestine assistance of Trauner and Kosma (both of whom were Jewish). Unable to portray contemporary events, the team turned instead to historical subjects. "Les Visiteurs du soir" (1942), a medieval allegory of love and death, was a considerable success in its time; its wooden performances and heavy-handed treatment, however, have aged badly. Their next film remains one of the most celebrated in cinema history. "Les Enfants du Paradis", shot during the Occupation but not released until after the Liberation, was an ambitious tale of love and theater life set in a dazzlingly recreated 19th-century Paris and featuring outstanding performances by Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Maria Casares, among others.
With the war over, Carne and Prevert revived poetic realism in "Les Portes de la nuit", but the film met with a poor reception from the public. When their next feature, "La Fleur de l'age", was cancelled in mid-production, the two ended their working relationship.
Carne's later career, despite his willingness to work with younger actors and new subject matter, was relatively unremarkable. Carne excelled at studio production, where reality could be recreated within the controllable confines of the sound stage, and the trend in France, encouraged by the young turks of the "nouvelle vague", was to take film out of the studio and into the streets. Although he became a symbol of the New Wave filmmakers' scorn for the "tradition of quality" in French cinema, Carne left behind a body of films which have stood the test of time.