Jacques Prévert

Active - 1932 - 2016  |   Born - Feb 4, 1900   |   Died - Jan 1, 1977   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Fantasy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Serious writers have never had an easy time surviving in the American film industry -- with the exception of a few sympathetic independent producers, Hollywood has generally ground up the work and reputations of serious authors trying to make careers in screenwriting, like so much chopped meat. In France, matters were very different, and no career better illustrated the difference than that of Jacques Prévert. An acclaimed poet, he successfully juggled that activity with a major career as a screenwriter, and only enhanced his reputation in both areas, rather than compromising his work.

Prévert was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine on February 4, 1900, and in the late '20s he worked for an advertising agency, a period during which he also began authoring poetry. He emerged in 1930 as a leading member of the burgeoning surrealist movement, and in 1932 he joined the agitprop "Groupe Octobre," an ideologically motivated performing ensemble whose members also participated in the surrealist fantasy film L'Affaire Est Dans le Sac, co-authored by Prévert and directed by Jacques' younger brother Pierre Prévert. Both brothers took occasional acting jobs onscreen, and appeared in Jean Vigo's renowned L'Atalante (1934).

Jacques Prévert quickly emerged as a screenwriter and dialogue writer in the mid-'30s, starting with Ciboulette (1933) and L'Hôtel du Libre Échange (1934), in which he also appeared as an actor. In 1935, he wrote his first important screenplay, for Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, though equally notable that same year was his first collaboration with directer Marcel Carné for the seemingly ill-fated film Jenny. In Carné's view, the movie might well have come to nothing, based on the restrictions of the production and the original story; instead, with Prévert's help, Jenny turned out to be surprisingly decent, and successful. More importantly, Prévert and Carné found the ideal collaborator in each other, which was similar to the creative partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were establishing their professional partnership in England around the same time).

Prévert and Carné quickly established the movement in French cinema called "poetic realism," which became the precursor to the American genre known as film noir. In Drôle de Drame (aka Bizarre, Bizarre) (1937), Quai des Brumes (aka Port of Shadows) (1938), and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), they generated some of the most startling movies ever made, and films that were tremendously influential overseas. Le Jour Se Lève was remade in America by Anatole Litvak as The Long Night (1947), an excellent film in its own right, and one that borrowed heavily from the original in many of its details. Those scripts revealed the characteristics most closely associated with Prévert's work, including a somewhat doom-laden sensibility and a free-flowing romanticism regarding youthful love, especially when contrasting such love with the corruption and cynicism of the world at large.

The Nazi occupation of France interrupted Prévert and Carné's partnership, and Prévert collaborated with other directors on Remorques (aka Stormy Waters [1939]), Le Soleil a Toujours Raison (1941), Les Visiteurs du Soir (aka The Devil's Envoys [1942]), Lumiere d'Été, and Adieu Léonard (both 1943). But in the years 1943-1945, Prévert and Carné generated the most acclaimed film ever to come out of France (and perhaps all of Europe), Les Enfants du Paradis (aka Children of Paradise). Despite all manner of challenges, including a massive script and huge crowd scenes, and the fact that it was being shot under the eyes of the occupying authorities, the movie was the highlight of Prévert's screen career, but it wasn't the only success that he achieved during this period.

In 1946, Prévert published Paroles, which became the biggest-selling volume of poetry ever published in France. The impact of Paroles was enhanced soon after by composer Joseph Kosma, who set some of it to music. A brace of international hit songs resulted, including "Les Feuilles Mortes" (aka "Autumn Leaves"), sung by Yves Montand in Les Portes de la Nuit (1946, directed by Carné), which was probably the simplest and most direct expression of Prévert's philosophy and art. Their writer/director partnership collapsed in 1948, following the cancellation of the movie La Fleur de L'Âge midway through production.

Prévert's reputation endured somewhat better than Carné's over the ensuing years, and he remained busy on all manner of films, including Albert Lamorisse's acclaimed short children's film Bim the Little Donkey (1950) and the huge international co-production Notre Dame de Paris (1957). In 1956, Columbia Pictures, with director Robert Aldrich and producer William Goetz, made a psychological/romantic thriller entitled Autumn Leaves. (Curiously, the story and screenplay might have worked better in the hands of Henri-Georges Clouzot.) For all of that exposure, and even the acclaim won by Lamorisse's movie, Prévert and Carné's collaborations together were considered the best screen work of either man. Prévert died of cancer at age 77.

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