With the publication of his book Paroles in 1945, Jacques Prévert (1900–1977) became France's most popular poet of the twentieth century. He was also an innovative screenwriter who helped create some of the most influential French films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the beloved Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). His satirical attacks on rigid French education and the Catholic Church and other institutions of authority expressed France's post-war disillusionment and defiant spirit.
Prévert the Young Rebel
Prévert was born on Feburary 4, 1900, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, near Paris. He grew up in a middle class family, the middle of three sons, and enjoyed a mostly happy childhood. His autobiographical prose poem, "Enfance" (Childhood), is filled with pleasant memories of street life in his hometown, including street performers such as singers and clowns. His father worked for the Office Central des Pauvres de Paris (Central Office for the Poor of Paris) and often took his son with him when his work took him to poorer sections of the city. Those experiences gave Prévert a lifelong sympathy with the poor and working class. His father also reviewed plays for local newspapers, and he often took his sons to the theater or the movie house, stimulating their imaginations. Prévert found school rigid and stifling, and he dropped out at 14. He was proud to say that the streets gave him his education.
In 1920 Prévert began his military service, required of all French men. While stationed at Lunéville in eastern France he befriended Yves Tanguy, who would later become a Surrealist painter. In 1921, while stationed in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), he met another friend, Marcel Duhamel. All three were eager to throw off the discipline of the military. Once their service was done, they moved to Paris and threw themselves into a rebellious, bohemian life. They moved to Rue du Château, a street in the artistic Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. Duhamel got a job managing a hotel and supported himself, Prévert, Tanguy, and their girlfriends as they hung out in cafés, went to movies and threw parties full of games of charades.
In 1925 Prévert married a longtime friend, Simone Dienne, and he, Tanguy, and Duhamel were introduced to the young leaders of the Surrealism movement, including the writer Andre Bréton. The Surrealists also found a home and a meeting place on Rue du Château. "The most absolute nonconformity, total irreverence and thorough good humor reigned there," Bréton recalled in his book of interviews, Entretiens , according to Claire Blakeway in her book Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema . "In a corner plastered with cinema posters—of vamps' eyes and pointed pistols—there was a little built-in bar which was always well-stocked." Though Prévert did not become a leading thinker among the Surrealists as his friend Tanguy did, he was an inspiration for his fellow artists. "With his anarchic sense of humor and his lively, nonconformist nature, he imparted great vitality into the movement," Blakeway wrote.
The alliance with the Surrealists lasted until around 1928, when Prévert, Tanguy, and Duhamel had a falling-out with Bréton over his heavy-handed leadership of the movement and moved out of Rue du Château. Prévert began working for an ad agency and writing poetry. His first poems, full of surrealist cleverness, were published in the early 1930s, including his influential and popular "Tentative de description d'un dîner de têtes à Paris-France" (Attempt to Describe a Dinner of Heads in Paris-France), published in Commerce in 1931.
Prévert's left wing politics led him in 1932 to join the workers' theater company Groupe Octobre, which was affiliated with the Communist Party. He wrote plays for the troupe that mixed Surrealist freedom and wordplay with strong political themes. The troupe appeared in the Surrealist film L'Affaire est dans le sac (The Affair Is In the Bag), which Prévert wrote with his brother, Pierre, in 1932. Prévert traveled to Moscow with the Groupe Octobre in 1933 to the International Workers' Theater Olympiad, to premier Prévert's play La Bataille de Fontenoy (The Battle of Fontenoy). He also began writing songs for singers such as Marianne Oswald.
Prévert and Carné
By the mid-1930s, Prévert began developing into a major screenwriter and dialogue writer. He collaborated with Jean Renoir, one of France's leading filmmakers of the 1930s, and the two co-wrote the 1935 film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange . He also began working with filmmaker Marcel Carné on the film Jenny . During this time he broke up with his wife, Simone, and soon fell in love with Jacqueline Laurent. In 1936 the Groupe Octobre broke up, unsure of how to react to changes in French and European left-wing politics, and Prévert's major poem "La Crosse en l'air" (The Cross in the Air) was published.
Carné and Prévert became frequent collaborators. Their startling, groundbreaking films of the late 1930s, Drôle de drame (aka Bizarre, Bizarre), Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), and Le Jour se lève (The Day Dawns) established the French film genre of poetic realism, which would heavily influence American film noir. The films shared signature preoccupations of Prévert's, 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," wrote Bruce Eder of allmovie.com.
After Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Prévert moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. He made another film with his brother, Adieu, Leonard , in 1942 and Lumière d'été (Light of Summer) with Jean Grémillon in 1943. Meanwhile, he continued to work with Carné, first on 1942's Les Visiteurs du soir (Evening Visitors). Aware that historical dramas stood a better chance of avoiding the censorship of the German occupying authorities and the Vichy government of southern France, they based their film on a fifteenth-century French legend. Its scenes in which two lovers defy their imprisonment in a castle by imagining themselves elsewhere struck a chord with the French during the Occupation.
Between 1943 and 1945, Carné and Prévert produced their masterpiece, Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). The film was extremely difficult to make, since it involved assembling large crowds for several scenes and since much of it was made during the Occupation. The film, which depicts several street performers in nineteenth-century Paris, is centered on four men in love with the same woman. It was inspired by the nineteenth-century story of a famous mime who killed a man that insulted his girlfriend. Thanks to its evocative depiction of historic Paris, its romantic themes, and the populist, anti-authoritarian themes that surprisingly made it past the censors, it became one of France's most popular and celebrated films of all time.
Prévert the Poet
The peak of Prévert's career came immediately after World War II. In 1945, the same year that Les Enfants du paradis was released, he published his collected poems, Paroles . The book sold more than 500,000 copies, almost unheard of for a book of poems in France. "Prévert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State," wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the introduction to the 1990 edition of Paroles , which he translated into English in 1958. Looking back in 1960, prominent French critic Gaëton Picon called Prévert "the only genuine poet who, at present, has succeeded in reaching beyond the bounds of a more or less specialized public," according to Blakeway's book. The verses in Paroles became even more popular when Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian composer who worked with Carné on his films, set some of them to music. Perhaps the most famous was "Les Feuilles Morts" (Autumn Leaves), which was recorded by Yves Montand and Juliette Gréco, two famed French singers of the post-war era. Montand's version appeared in the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (The Doors of the Night), the last collaboration between Carné and Prévert. He also published Contes pour enfants pas sages (Stories for Children Who Aren't Very Well-Behaved) in 1947.
Prévert's career suffered twin setbacks in 1948. His partnership with Carné fell apart when the film La Fleur de l'âge was cancelled during production. Also, while at the office of Radiodiffusion Nationale in Paris, he fell and was severely injured, spending weeks in a coma. Once he recovered, he moved with his family—his second wife, Janine Loris, was an alumna of the Groupe Octobre—back to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
In 1951 Prévert published Spectacle , a collection of poetry and dramatic works, followed by La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) in 1955. He also worked on films and books for children, such as Bim, le petit âne (Bim the Little Donkey). In 1955 he moved back to Paris. He had become so popular that strangers approached him on the street and quoted lines of his poems to greet him.
American poet Eve Merriam went to visit Prévert in 1959 and spent hours with him talking about poetry and art. Writing in the New Republic , she recalled him as "a short, white-haired man with blue eyes, blunt expressive fingers, cigarette dangling from his lips like a corny Apache dancer. Wearing a blue sweater the color of his eyes, dapper gray flannels, and black leather moccasins newly polished, he looked like a sportive dandy." In 1961, when Serge Gainsbourg, soon to become France's most revered songwriter, wrote the tribute song "La Chanson De Prévert," he went to Prévert's house to seek his blessing and ended up spending a morning drinking champagne with him.
Prévert produced several art collages during the late 1950s and early 1960s. "They were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy," Merriam wrote in the New Republic . They were exhibited in Paris in 1957 and in Antibes in southern France in 1963. He continued to publish books, including Histoires et d'autres histoires (Stories and Other Stories) in 1963 and Choses et autres (Things and Other Things) in 1972.
After a long illness, Prévert died on April 11, 1977, at his home in Omonville-La-Petite, in Normandy, France. That day, Carné (as quoted in the New York Times ) called him "the one and only poet of French cinema," whose "humor and poetry succeeded in raising the banal to the summit of art" and whose style reflected "the soul of the people." Prévert wanted to be remembered as a people's poet. A few years before his death, in an interview quoted in Harriet Zinnes's introduction to her book Blood and Feathers , Prévert said, "I was popular even before being fashionable. That's how it was. What gave me pleasure was having readers…. They are the greatest literary critics…. These are the people who know the best literature, those who love it, not the connoisseurs."
Baker, William, Jacques Prévert , Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Blakeway, Claire, Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema , Associated University Presses, 1990.
Prévert, Jacques, Blood and Feathers: Selected Poems of Jacques Prévert , (translated by Harriet Zinnes), Schocken Books, 1988.
Prévert, Jacques, Paroles (translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti), City Lights Books, 1990.
Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes , Da Capo Press, 2001.
New Republic , July 9 & 16, 1977.
New York Times , April 12, 1977.
"Biography of Jacques Prévert," Hommage à Jacques Prévert , http://www.xtream.online.fr/Prévert (December 20, 2006).
"Jacques Prévert," Encyclopedia Britannica , http://www.search.eb.com (December 20, 2006).
"Jacques Prévert: Overview," allmovie.com , http://www.allmovie.com (January 1, 2007).