Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - Gérard Philipe - Yves Robert - accordion

Juliette, or the Key of Dreams
1951, directed by Marcel Carné

The likeness between Juliette, or the Key of Dreams and the allegorical French films made during the Nazi Occupation – which were equally dreamlike – is not accidental. Marcel Carné had begun filming the story with Jean Marais and Micheline Presle in 1941, but if we want to be fair to the 1951 film we must credit it for speaking to its contemporary audience, not merely resurrecting an abandoned decade-old project. Like the wartime films which had used fantasy and surrealism to mask subversive content from the eyes of German censors, Juliette uses a similar strategy to make palatable a portrait of France that nationalists would surely have found insulting if it were put into plain language. The Village of Lost Memories, where most of the story is set, is an uncomfortably accurate analogy for a country that wished to forget much of its own recent past, particularly the shame and humiliation it had endured during World War II.

As a leftist who had opted to remain in France through the war, Carné was acutely aware of both the horrors of the Nazi regime and the disunity which permitted Germany to dominate his countrymen. Among the several allegorical pro-Resistance films that Juliette resembles so much, the most successful was Carné’s own Les visiteurs du soir, whose hidden subtext not only equated Hitler with the Devil, but also attacked the impotent French army, the upper classes weakened by nostalgia for national glory, the aloof Catholic church, and the seditious Cagoulards who paved the way for a fascist takeover.

Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - Bluebeard - Barbe bleu - mirror

The Village of Lost Memories in Michel’s dream is a withering portrait of a country that has forgotten its own past. No one Michel meets on the road remembers the village name. A pair of women greet each other thrice in quick succession, unable to recall the last thing they said. The constable can’t remember his announcements. An old woman in a candy shop keeps forgetting the insults of her customer, who turns out to be the infamous Bluebeard. Bluebeard cannot remember who he is, and Juliette has forgotten both her identity and her love for Michel.

But this is not merely an epidemic of personal amnesia… the incidents also equate the lack of memory with a wider historical obliviousness. Bluebeard spends his days reading and re-reading a complete library of history books, trying in vain to find his own place in world events. The clock with no hands fits a village that has lost its sense of time. A man tries to figure out what day it is by arranging loose calendar pages on the front steps of the mayor’s office, locating this endemic forgetfulness right at the seat of power. It’s a small step to translate all this into a picture of France, which had willfully forgotten its own complicity in the German Occupation. Gaullist mythmaking after the war had conveniently reassured the nation of its own heroism, inflating France’s pitifully small Resistance into a decisive force on a par with the Allied armies.

Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - Gérard Philipe - Suzanne Cloutier

The guiding spirit behind Juliette, it would seem, is George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bluebeard is famous for murdering his wives, but that doesn’t deter Juliette because she has no capacity for memory. People who are unaware of their history can be talked into anything, including atrocities and self-destruction. The extremity of Juliette’s blindness is driven home when she first hears the name “Bluebeard” and can only remark that it’s “such a pretty name.”

The only character Michel meets in his dream who hasn’t lost all memory is the accordionist, who says that memories come back to him as he plays. In this allegory the arts are a more effective guardian of memory than written history. Bluebeard’s books do nothing for a reader who thinks only of himself, but the accordion represents a living culture with limited but real power to preserve memory. If an allegory like Juliette, or the Key of Dreams can hope to capture the character of a historical moment, then why shouldn’t cinema itself function like this accordion?

This socio-political lesson about the importance of remembering history is, of course, universal. Even if postwar France was particularly guilty of whitewashing its past, it is hardly alone in doing so. But just as the lesson expands outward, beyond France and beyond the 20th century when we put it in a wider perspective, it also focuses inward when we consider how it speaks to individuals on a personal level. The characters in Michel’s dream have not only lost their memories – they are willfully denying their own experience.

When Michel searches for Juliette in the cemetery, the accordionist warns him that the villagers will try to substitute his memories for their own missing experiences. In the fairy tale world of this movie there may be a kind of strange magic to the idea, but it’s not so different from the real world where so many people live vicariously through celebrities or exciting fictional characters. We can blame this on boredom, but boredom is rooted in a rejection of experience – people decide to be bored because they feel their own experience is not good enough. When a policeman comes to arrest Michel at the cemetery, we soon see what the accordionist was speaking of – lacking any memory of his own, the policeman offers to unlock Michel’s handcuffs in exchange for details about his love life with Juliette. There’s something grossly perverse about the man’s interest in the lovers’ kisses, but if we reflect on the motives behind ordinary gossip or fascination with celebrity love lives, it’s not an uncommon perversion.

Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - forest - dance

The long scene in the middle of Juliette where the villagers dance in the forest elaborates on the importance of experience as distinct from mere memory. A pushcart vendor sells secondhand souvenirs of other people’s experiences: photo albums, a tear-soaked handkerchief, locks of hair, and sentimental items of clothing. Restaurant proprietor Père Jeunesse tells customers made-up stories of their own romantic pasts. A fortune teller reads his clients’ forgotten experiences on their palms. When a smiling soldier learns of his bleak and loveless past, he suddenly rejects the pretty young woman holding his arm. It seems like an odd thing to do, but people who cannot find value in their real lived experience will not easily be satisfied by chances at happiness that come their way. Much more than individual pleasure is at stake – populations that are unable to be satisfied are dangerous to society and to the planet.

Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - Suzanne Cloutier - castle - columns

To embrace experience means facing the full truth, however shameful or unpleasant it might be. Michel knows this when he refuses to lie to Juliette about a trip to Spain they never took. Eventually he weakens though, and – as if his lie breaks a spell – he loses her. This lie, like many of the characters in his dream, has a counterpart in the real world that he wakes up to. After stealing money from his boss, Mr. Bellanger, to pay for a trip to the seaside with Juliette, he had pretended to be Bellanger’s son, hoping to embellish his stature in Juliette’s eyes.

There is surely an element of class economics in Carné’s version of the story. The aristocratic Bluebeard is a villain, and the bourgeois Mr. Bellanger is distasteful at best. The movie sympathizes with Michel, whose errors stem from the pressures of being at the bottom of the economic scale – but it also recognizes that he is wrong. Presenting himself to Juliette as someone he’s not, he denies his own humble experience and loses her, just like in his dream.

Juliette or the Key of Dreams - Juliette ou La clef des songes - Marcel Carné - Gérard Philipe - stairway - Paris

Juliette is structured like The Wizard of Oz with a long dream framed at both ends by reality, and with parallels to reality in the dream. Unlike Dorothy however, Michel does not learn his lesson. When he tells Juliette he’s found someone to replace her, we know he’s referring to his fantasy version of her. She’s rejected him for economic reasons, which is hard for both of them, but his rejection of her is worse because it shuts out the reality of experience altogether. And by his own admission, he had already rejected her before climbing into her apartment, preferring his imaginary Juliette to the real Juliette. If through some chance of fate she had welcomed him and renounced Bellanger, she would be stuck with a man who cared more for his own image of her. Instead he runs from her and hides by a door with the ominous words: “Entry forbidden: Danger”. When he goes through this door, whether or not he meets his literal death, we know he is lost – rejecting experience is a form of suicide.


The Wizard of Oz – Framing story with parallels between dream and reality; attraction to illusion

La nuit fantastique – Allegory of France; protagonist dreams of a woman in white

Hiroshima mon amour – Willful obliteration of memory, rejection of experience

Red Desert – Experience as the substance of life

Blade Runner – Primacy of experience over abstraction; wealthy tend to live in abstraction