Along a quiet, foggy road a solitary soldier tries to catch a lift. Even before a single word has been said, we have a beautifully moody scene that could lead anywhere but is bound to be significant. It couldn’t be otherwise because Jean Gabin, star of French 1930s and 40s silver screen, plays that lonely soldier.
Made 40 years before The Deer Hunter or Taxi Driver, Quai des Brumes (or Port of Shadows) is possibly the first film to feature a Vietnam vet. Jean Gabin’s French soldier has been fighting in Tonkin, Indochina and is now disillusioned with the army and France, and wants to catch a boat to Venezuela. A lorry driver takes him to Le Havre, but before he can find a boat he gets tangled up with a beautiful girl, gangsters and drunken poets. This is an example of the short lived, but lovely, genre that was Poetic Realism.
Quai des Brumes was directed by Marcel Carné, who, alongside Jean Renoir, made some of the best known of all the poetic realist films. The genre was characterised by featuring characters from the margins of society (as opposed to the glamorous lives celebrated by Hollywood), a generally fatalistic philosophy, and the visual representation of the characters’ psychological reality. So, this was realism in the sense of expressing an poetic truth or artistic reality, and was a long way from reflecting to ordinary, day-to-day life.
One particularly good example of this doomed poetry issues from the mouth of a depressed artist who says that “To me, a swimmer is already a drowned man,” and later “The sea’s rough and foggy, and I swim pretty badly, and that’s fine by me.” This may seem a little ridiculous, and perhaps it is, but this is probably what you get with a film that was written by someone who was a published poet as well as a screenwriter, Jacques Prévert.
The artist’s statement is made in an after-hours shack-cum-bar that stands on a deserted promontory at the edge of Le Havre harbour. Run by a landlord called Panama who is partial to plucking out melancholy tunes on his guitar, the bar is a repository of broken dreams in a town of philosophical no hopers. If this bar symbolises a psychological reality, it is a world that may be bleak but is also beautiful.
Jean Gabin’s soldier ends up in the bar where he meets the teenager Nelly, played by Michèle Morgan. She is trying to escape from her abusive godfather, Zabel, and is also getting hassled by local hood Lucien who is trying to hunt down her ex-boyfriend Maurice – who has gone missing. With gangsters, world-weary barmen, suicidal painters, a teenage beauty with vertiginous cheekbones who falls for a working class hero, all of whom spout philosophical dialogue, how could Quai des Brumes not be a Romantic (with a capital R) film?
Every part of it is perfectly realised. Prévert’s gritty, poetic dialogue, the mists and shadows of master cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, Alexandre Trauner‘s deft set design (Panama’s bar must be one of the most original drinking holes in cinema) all go together to create a luminously original world. It’s also probably fair to say that any film where Coco Chanel was responsible for the costumes is bound to have some stand out images, and Nelly’s outfit looks strikingly ahead of their time.
With all this poetry, existentialism and romantic fatalism, Quai des Brumes might not be for everyone. The collaborationist Vichy government during the Second World War certainly didn’t like it and had it banned it as a bad influence on the youth. Their official statement read that ‘If we have lost the war, it’s because of Quai des Brumes‘. It’s doubtful the youth of today would find the film a bad influence, in fact it might be a civilised alternative to video games, rioting and miaow miaow. Just as long as they don’t takes swimming tips from depressed poets.
Quai des Brumes is available on Blu-Ray for the first time on Monday 11 September, it comes with bonus material, including features on:
– On The Port Of Shadows
– Introduction to Le Quai Des Brumes by Ginette Vincendeau, Professor and Film Critic
– Restoring Le Quai Des Brumes
– Booklet on the movie written by Ginette Vincendeau professor and film critic.