Jacques Prévert was a French poet and screenwriter. His poems became and remain very popular in the French-speaking world, particularly in schools. Some of the movies he wrote are extremely well regarded, with Les Enfants du Paradis considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Life and Education
Prévert was born at Neuilly-sur-Seine and grew up in Paris. After receiving his Certificat d'études upon completing his primary education, he quit school and went to work in Le Bon Marché, a major department store in Paris. Called up for military service in 1918, after the war, he was sent to the Near East to defend French interests there.
He died in Omonville-la-Petite, on 11 April 1977. He had been working on the last scene of the animated movie Le Roi et l'oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird) with his friend and collaborator Paul Grimault. When the film was released in 1980, it was dedicated to Prévert's memory, and on opening night, Grimault kept the seat next to him empty.
Prévert participated actively in the Surrealist movement. Together with the writer Raymond Queneau and artist Marcel Duchamp, he was a member of the Rue du Château group. He was also a member of the agitprop Groupe Octobre.
Prévert's poems were collected and published in his books: Paroles (Words) (1946), Spectacle (1951), La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) (1955), Histoires (Stories) (1963), Fatras (1971) and Choses et autres (Things and Others) (1973).
His poems are often about life in Paris and life after the Second World War. They are widely taught in schools in France and frequently appear in French language textbooks throughout the world.
Some of Prévert's poems, such as "Les Feuilles mortes" (Autumn Leaves), "La grasse matinée" (Sleeping in), "Les bruits de la nuit" (The sounds of the night), and "Chasse à l'enfant" (The hunt for the child) were set to music by Joseph Kosma—and in some cases by Germaine Tailleferre of Les six, Christiane Verger, and Hanns Eisler. They have been sung by prominent 20th century French vocalists, including Marianne Oswald, Yves Montand, and Édith Piaf, as well as by the later American singers Joan Baez and Nat King Cole. In 1961, French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg paid tribute to "Les feuilles mortes" in his own song "La chanson de Prévert."
More recently, the British remix DJ's Coldcut released their own version in 1993. A German version has been published and covered by Didier Caesar (alias Dieter Kaiser), which he named "Das welke Laub". "Les feuilles mortes" also bookends Iggy Pop's 2009 album, Préliminaires.
Prévert wrote a number of screenplays for the film director Marcel Carné. Among the films were Drôle de drame (Bizarre, Bizarre, 1937), Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939), Les Visiteurs du soir (The Night Visitors, 1942) and Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise, 1945). The latter often appears on critics' lists of the greatest films of all time.
His poems were the basis for a film by the director and documentarian Joris Ivens, La Seine a rencontré Paris (The Seine Meets Paris, 1957), about the River Seine. The poem was read as narration during the film by singer Serge Reggiani.
Prévert had a long working relationship with Paul Grimault, also a member of Groupe Octobre. Together they wrote the screenplays of a number of animated movies, starting with the short "Le Petit Soldat" ("The Little Soldier") in 1947. They worked together until his death in 1977, when he was finishing "Le Roi et l'Oiseau" ("The King and the Bird").
Prévert adapted several Hans Christian Andersen tales into animated or mixed live-action/animated movies, often in versions loosely connected to the original. Two of these were with Grimault, including "Le Roi et l'Oiseau", which is considered one of the greatest animated films of all time, while one was with his brother Pierre Prévert.