Outside France, Jacques Prévert is best known as a screenwriter; among his credits are a number of films that have become classics of the French cinema. His first screenplay was written for his brother, Pierre Prévert, the director of L’Affaire est dans le sac (1932). The success of his dialogue in Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) led to more such scripts, marked by Prévert’s sparkling wit and poetic repartee. His long collaboration with director Marcel Carné (born 1909) produced eight major films by 1950, including such masterpieces as Jenny (1936), Drôle de drame (1937), and Les Enfants du paradis (1945; Children of Paradise, 1968). Many film historians credit Carné’s success to Prévert’s scripts, although it must be pointed out that the highly successful Le Jour se lève (1939) was simply adapted by Prévert from an existing script, and that Prévert also adapted the unsuccessful 1956 version of Notre Dame de Paris. Carné regards Prévert as “the one and only poet of the French cinema,” one whose contribution “reflects the soul of the people.”
Prévert’s cabaret-style songs and stage pieces for the group Octobre are often overlooked in his oeuvre. Although they predate his major film successes and seem minor in comparison, these verses contain the seeds of both Prévert’s screen dialogue and his later poetry. Most screenwriters of Prévert’s time came to the new art burdened with preconceptions from the theater or literature, but Prévert himself simply wrote scenarios that he thought would appeal to moviegoers, and he succeeded. Many of his scripts have been published and today provide texts for students writing screenplays.
Prévert also produced several charming books for children, including Le Petit Lion (1947) and Des bêtes . . . (1950). In 1953, he wrote lyrics for Christiane Verger’s Tour de chant and L’Opéra de la lune. His translation into French of the medieval Carmina burana, set to the music of Carl Orff, was published in 1965 and achieved high critical esteem. In the United States, Prévert is known as the lyricist of such popular songs as “Les Feuilles mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”) and “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”).