Michel (Gérard Philip), a humble clerk caught stealing from his employer to pay for a holiday with his girlfriend, now lies in prison. At night Michel's mind drifts to thoughts of his beloved Juliette (Suzanne Cloutier). He awakens in a dream where the door to his cell magically opens drawing him into the 'Land of Lost Memories.' In this beautiful, sun-drenched country town the inhabitants have no recollection of their past lives nor each other. Yet everyone claims to know Juliette, or at least an unreliable interpretation of whom she might be. An arduous search finally leads Michel to his lost love. However Juliette struggles to recall their past together whilst beguiled by a sinister aristocrat (Jean-Roger Caussimon) with designs of his own.
Despite the best efforts of Georges Méliès, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Demy and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, French cinema has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the fantastique. Particularly in the aftermath of the Nouvelle Vague and their spiritual godfather film critic André Bazin who favoured a grittier, more psychologically-driven and politically engaged cinema. As a result most filmmakers that dabbled in fantasy in the post-war period cloaked their artistic impulses in psychological realism rather than mere artifice for art's sake. Fantasy as reflection of the Id. Such is the approach here in the alternately charming and unsettling Juliette ou la Clé des songes (Juliette, or Key of Dreams) by master filmmaker Marcel Carné.
Carné, a leading exponent of the French poetic realist school hitherto feted for his masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), was by 1951 increasingly lambasted by the likes of Bazin and François Truffaut (who once claimed he would trade all his own films to have directed Les Enfants...) as a flailing artist. Hopelessly out of touch with contemporary cinema. As a result Carné's attempt at an allegorical fantasy was initially dismissed as a failed experiment or at worst embarrassingly twee. Happily subsequent generations, unfettered by the constraints of the Nouvelle Vague, have since reappraised Juliette, or Key of Dreams as an audacious, heartrending fable. Far from disappearing up his own arse Carné grounds this flight of fancy in earthly realism. The opening scene invokes themes familiar from his previous work: poverty, social deprivation and desperation. Which makes the hero's sudden flight into fantasy that more magical and affecting. While Michel's physical body lies imprisoned his soul escapes to the land of dreams where love makes anything possible.
Instead of an Oz-like Technicolor fairyland Carné's dreamscape is a pastoral idyll seemingly modeled on the provincial sagas of his contemporary: the hugely influential novelist and film director Marcel Pagnol. Each character encountered by Michel comes across as a subtle parody of a certain stock provincial type, recognizable to a French viewer from the Fifties if perhaps less so to a contemporary, non-French audience. Filmed in painterly black and white by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, master of European art-house fairy tales from La Belle et la Bête (1946) to Wings of Desire (1987), the film's spectacular sets evoke a fairy tale atmosphere that seeps through to the varied delicately pitched performances. As charmingly portrayed by Suzanne Cloutier (who ably embodies two contrasted love interests), Juliette herself is drawn as an almost childlike figure, enchanted by the adventure in which she is less an active heroine than someone playing a role. Her occasional whimsical nature and flightiness reflect Carné's concept of the ephemeral nature of love. Interestingly the film has a surprise twist that ties it with a famous, and oft-filmed, French fairy tale.
Central to the story is an ongoing debate as to whether dreams, desire and memory make people happy or unhappy. After all more often than not desire leads only to heartbreak while memory leaves a lingering sense of loss. The inhabitants of the village, both benign and menacing, are eager to uncover anything about their past although some do not like what they find. Through Michel's odyssey, Pagnol ponders whether humanity might be more free without the burden of dreams. Yet he ultimately argues that dreams also define us as human. They reflect our humanity at its most pure, unshackled by the constraints of this mortal flesh and indeed reality. When Michel rejects Juliette's willingness to simply imagine themselves a romantic past, his response ("No more fantasies. I want the truth") could be interpreted as Pagnol's conciliatory gesture to the likes of Bazin and Truffaut. However the finale foreshadows Guillermo Del Toro's similarly themed Pan's Labyrinth (2006) in abandoning heartbreaking reality for the ambiguous comfort of fantasy. One imagines Juliette, or Key of Dreams was a significant influence on Michel Gondry dealing as it does in the later French auteur's favourite themes: dreams, memory, loss and love.