Port of Shadows – Le Quai des Brumes (1938)


  • directed by Marcel Carné
  • starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michéle Morgan
  • A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a smoky French port city.

Le Peintre: Some people go fishing or hunting or go to war. Others commit crimes of passion. Some commit suicide. You have to kill someone.

Quart Vittel:That’s life.

This was my first dip of the toe into the moody waters of French poetic realism, a genre that began in the 1930s by directors, such as Duvivier, Carné, and Renoir. Now, I know the definitions of the words poetic and realism as much as the next guy but the tenets of the genre still seem a bit foggy to me, no pun intended. Pun being that fog is actually one of the predominant tenets.

Anyway, I’ve discovered through some online browsing that the aspects dealt with in poetic realism are any number of the following: long takes and long shots, the use of imagery to convey social commentary, doomed romance, fog, and the depiction of town outskirts and social outcasts. To that, keeping in mind I’m a full-on newbie, I would add a style of narrative and dialogue that differed greatly from the handful of Hollywood efforts I’ve seen so far. The characters in Port of Shadows aren’t spewing plot points and they definitely aren’t grandstanding in any dramatic way. The dialogue paints a picture, sometimes in generalities, but often lets us in on a whole host of things about the film’s universe that we wouldn’t have gotten from any kind of Hollywood zinger-type comeback. The many side characters of Le Havré that we meet are all flawed but are fully realized no matter how much we’ve heard from them.

As realistic as the dialogue was, the violence skewed in the opposite direction with extreme acts being presented in quite a casual way. Jean at one point legit bashes Zabel’s face in with a vase or candlestick type of item but it’s presented in such a way that it might as well have been a flick of the earlobe. It was the same story for punches and gunshots. We know Jean has a history of no holds barred behavior, and it is precisely those horrors that he’s running away from, but aside from insinuating the gruesome side of humanity, we end up seeing very little of it. I wonder what level of edgy content you could have gotten away with back then. Apparently not too much.

Jean Gabin was strong here and I’ll be seeing him one more time before 1938 is over. We aren’t clued in on the complete backstory of Jean, but we know he is anxious for an escape from war and France altogether yet is eventually weighed down by his romance with Nelly. I would say he was also weighed down by the dog that followed him around the whole movie (a dog that had to have been at least a little bit of an inspiration for The Artist‘s Uggie), but at the end of the day it seemed like Jean could have taken him or left him. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but he had two shifting high priorities, Nelly and that ship to Venezuela. The dog, however, cared. Oh, in the end it breaks your heart how much that dog cares.

I enjoyed my foray into French cinema so much that I’ve decided to take small breaks from my year-by-year watching schedule to pepper in a title from before 1938 here and there. Not only are there major American efforts to take in, but I now realize the very beginnings of this strong period in French film are worth the deviation from my up until now chronologically planned quest.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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