Between 1936 and 1946, Marcel Carné was among the chief proponents of poetic realism, a studio-bound film style that combined theatrical themes with elaborate dialogues which depicted ordinary people attempting to contend with the unalterable nature of destiny. The shadowy fatalism of poetic realism presaged the more popular American film noir. Though the style was created by Jacques Feyder, with whom Carné apprenticed, it was Carné and poet/screenwriter Jacques Prévert who brought it to its full fruition with Enfants du Paradise (Children of Paradise) (1945), a work still considered one of France's greatest films.
Born and raised in Montmarte, Carné was originally slated to work for an insurance agency by his father, a cabinetmaker. Carné, however, was more interested in movies and secretly attended evening classes on cinematography with the Paris city council-sponsored Association Philomantique. Without telling his father, Carné left the agency in 1928 to work as an assistant cameraman for Feyder's Les Noveaux Messieurs (1928). He next filmed Richard Oswald's Cagilostro (1929). After winning a Cinémagazine contest for amateur film criticism, Carné became a staff critic for the periodical from 1929 to 1933. He also occasionally wrote for Cinémonde often using the penname Albert Cranche. Just prior to becoming a writer, Carné had begun work on his debut film, Nogent, Eldorado du Dimanche (Nogent, the Sunday Eldorado) (1929). This documentary was a silent chronicle of working-class people enjoying a peaceful Sunday afternoon. He next worked as an assistant director for Rene Clair on Sous les toits de Paris (1930). He gained further experience in filmmaking when he directed a series of advertising shorts with animator Paul Grimault and writer Jean Aurenche. For a short time, Carné edited the weekly Hebdo-film. By 1933, Carné had tired of simply reviewing films and became Feyder's permanent assistant director, working on some of Feyder's best films, including Le Grand Jeu (1934) and La Kermesse Héroique (1935). It was Feyder who provided Carné his feature film directorial debut with Jenny (1936). Starring Feyder's wife Francoise Rosay, the story was melodramatic, but it was set apart by Carné's creation of a dark, misty urban setting. Showing an unusual rapport with his actors, Carné drew forth strong, poetic performances from each cast member.
When the Nazis invaded France during WWII, most of the country's best filmmakers fled the country, but Carné remained and it was during this time that he did his best work. Carné's next three films showcased the talents of his production team, including Alexandre Trauner, cameramen Eugen Schufftan, Curt Courant, and composers Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma. Perhaps the most important member of Carné's team was screenwriter Prévert. Some of their best collaborations include Les Visiteurs du Soir (The Devil's Envoys) (1942), an allegory of Nazi occupation thinly veiled by the story of a medieval French tale, Port of Shadows, and Daybreak. Begun shortly before the liberation of France, Les Enfants du Paradise was the first to be distributed in postwar France. It proved to be the apex of their collaboration. Prévert's and Carné's next film, Les Portes de la Nuit (1946), proved a box-office flop. But while making La Fleur de l'Age (1949), he and Prévert had a falling-out over budgetary matters. The film was never completed and the two never worked together again.
Though he was only in his forties during the early '50s, Carné's career was drawing painfully to an end. For this was the dawn of Nouvelle Vague, a movement influenced by American film noir, gangster films, Italian neorealism (though not as Spartan in execution), and the work of Jean Renoir. The new breed of directors relied heavily on exterior and location filming, rejecting Carné's studio-bound films, calling them artificial and static. Carné responded with his indictment of the younger generation in Les Tricheurs (The Cheaters) (1958); unfortunately, the film, though commercially successful, failed to capture the attention of the younger critics and directors who dismissed it as an old-fashioned exposé. From this point onward, Carné would be relegated to making mediocre films for the rest of his career, though in the early '70s there was a resurgence of acclaim for Les Enfants du Paradise. Of his post 1950s films, his only relative success was Trois Chambre a Manhattan (Three Rooms in Manhattan) (1965), an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel. His last feature film, La Merveilleuse Visite (1974), was a lifeless fantasy that was so poorly received, Carné was forced to retire because no one in France would finance his future projects. Carné died in the Paris suburb of Clamart on Halloween 1996, at the age of 90.