Le Quai des brumes (Marcel Carné, 1938) opens on a fog-swept, darkened rural road leading to the port of Le Havre. A truck driver narrowly avoids crashing into the hitchhiking figure of colonial Army deserter Jean (played by none other than popular ’30s cinema icon Jean Gabin). After the two men exchange pleasantries Jean turns the wheel suddenly to avoid running over a stray dog. At the end of the film, following a tragic climax, the dog will free itself from a lead confining it to a ship’s cabin and run back again to that lonely, desolate road now suddenly under the domain of night and fog shot with the blurred soft-focus lens seen at the beginning.
Devotees of 1930s French cinema will immediately recognise the style as that of French “poetic realism”, one of those elusive cinematic terms that appear easy to recognise but difficult to define, a style like classical film noir that always appears to be taxonomically amorphous. Possibly beginning with Pierre Chenal’s La Rue sans nom (1934) and ending with Carné’s Les Portes de la nuit (1946), poetic realism’s characteristic soft focus, chiaroscuro, stylistically bleak cinematography (that may have been influenced by Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, 1928) appears to be the missing link between German expressionism and film noir. All three styles creatively merge in Christian-Jaque’s phenomenal Voyage sans espoir (1943), a film also containing astounding mobile camera sequences that Hitchcock and Ophuls would envy. As Alan Williams pertinently remarks,
few labels in French film history are as vexing as poetic realism. It is arguably not a school, at least not to the extent that cinematic impressionism was. Nor is it a genre, yet it is something more than a style. Historians and critics do not even agree on a basic list of films to which it applies. (1)
Its location changed from the turn of the century Montmartre in the original 1927 novel by Pierre Mac Orlan to contemporary Le Havre a year before World War II, Le Quai des brumes was a film recalled by those two existentialist icons, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, as one of the few French films of the era that they admired. They praised especially the “fog of despair enveloping the entire film” (2). Attractive as any readings associating the film with the pessimistic mood involving the decline of the French Popular Front may be, it is also important to see the influence of other contemporary elements within the narrative. Reasons for Jean’s desertion from Tonkin remain unexplained. But possibly the atrocities he may have committed in French colonial service may explain the alienation affecting him for most of the film, as well as a recognition that Dien Bien Phu is not too far away. Jean does not need to look at the fog: “I know all about it, I was in Tonkin”, and taps his head to show his companion that it exists both physically and psychologically outside Tonkin, “In here”. He ends up in Panama’s haven by the sea, a refuge whose fixed barometer attempts to deny the storm outside and who tells Jean, framed by shadow bars, “There’s no fog here. It’s always fair weather.” Michel Simon’s Zabel resembles a Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, Jean Renoir, 1932) who has not only chosen to embrace bourgeois civilisation and its discontents but also appears to have emerged from a Georges Simenon novel with frustrated desires for his “ward” of a pathetic but never sympathetic nature (“It’s horrible to love like Romeo when you look like Bluebeard”).
The Marcel Carné-Jacques Prévert collaboration resulted in three films that can be defined according to the term French poetic realism – Jenny (1936), Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le Jour se léve 1939) – leaving aside Prévert’s other collaborations with directors such as Jean Renoir in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) and Jean Gremillon in Remorques (1939). They compete with the neglected figure of Pierre Chenal in this area whose La Rue sans nom, Crime et Châtiment (Crime and Punishment, 1935), L’Alibi (1937), and Le Dernier tournant (1939) are all important, especially in relation to Prévert’s collaboration with Gremillion on Jean Gabin’s last pre-WW2 film Remorques. Although his collaboration with Carné often paralleled that of the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), his role as a key exemplar of poetic realism should also not be neglected. In many ways his role in this collaboration resembled the positive effect Adrian Scott had on Edward Dmytryk in their 1940s RKO film noir collaborations.
Utilising the visual contributions of Eugen Schüfftan and the excellent set designs of Alexandre Trauner, Le Quai des brumes depicts a world of claustrophobic entrapment where any avenue of escape appears either illusory or impossible. Again, although reading the film as a historical reflection of the period appears inevitable and not entirely impermissible, other influences are apparent. Jean, Nelly, Zabel, and Lucien are all dominated by oppressive elements within their psyche that lead either to destruction or pessimistic blind alleys. Panama exists in a shack that he believes is a refuge from the stormy weather outside. But this fragile dwelling serves as no protection from the bullets of Lucien’s thugs which smash both the fixed barometer as well as the ship in a bottle he has laboured over for so many years. It contains Nelly fleeing from Zabel as well Robert Le Vigan’s alienated artist intellectual, Michel Krauss, who follows the logical trajectory of his pessimism by performing suicide. However, although Krauss may see this sacrificial act as assisting the deserter Jean, by bequeathing him his own clothes, it eventually contributes to further entrapment. The later discovery of Jean’s uniform, consigned to the depths of Le Havre harbour by another act of good intentions on Panama’s part, results in the deserter’s suspicion of Maurice’s murder. Michel’s line – “You have to be an idiot to go on living with so much despair, so much anxiety… I’m done. I’ve come full circle” – has ironic consequences since Jean will have come full circle at a later point in the film.
Certain Jean Gabin films of the 1930s sometimes offer male comradeship as an escape route from deceptive females and encroaching doom, as in La Belle équipe (1936), La Grande illusion (1937), Guele d’amour (Jean Gremillon, 1937). The possibility for this also exists here, as with the friendship between the art-admiring ship’s doctor and Jean now masquerading as an artist. As Gabin’s character says, “It’s like a man to be free. Everyone gangs up on them like a pack of dogs.” (3) But the movement towards the hero’s destruction and doom-laden narrative climax of Le Jour se levè gains momentum in this film. The pessimistic fate awaiting the hero is one André Bazin associated with Gabin’s ’30s star persona (4). It is also one that has associations with Zola’s deterministic thesis of human fate already seen in Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938). Similarly, the bleak narrative of Quai des brumes eventually moves towards its deterministic climax very much in the manner of the mining machinery in Zola’s Germinal that grinds towards the eventual destruction of its victims. Unlike David Lean’s unhappy couple, the lovers eventually consummate their “brief encounter” – shot with the romantic focus and lighting typical of French cinema – leading the stolid and sometimes abrasive Jean to tell Nelly: “I wanted to tell you that thanks to you, I’ve been happy at least once in my life”.
In their last moments together, Carné uses romantically lit choker close-up shots of the two lovers before Jean eventually descends into darkness. The ship’s funnel sounds. Jean’s dog escapes its collar, runs down the length of the ship, and back into the suddenly black road filmed in dark blurred focus. Doom is imminently felt but it will not actually manifest itself until a year later and the declaration of war. Ending on this visual note, Le Quai des brumes aptly exemplifies Dudley Andrew’s attempt at a precise definition of poetic realism in his use of the term optique, one that involves a particular combination of ocular and ideological perspectives existing in a particular era and familiar to audiences of that time (5).
- Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992, p. 232. Williams attempts to list the key works of poetic realism – 15 titles beginning with La Ruse sans nom and ending with Remorques – while also creatively bringing into play other works such as the last Carné/Prévert collaboration, Les Portes de la nuit, and the emerging stylistic fusion that calls the initial definition into question.
- Williams, p. 235.
- For a sophisticated reading of Gabin’s contemporary star persona see Ginette Vincendeau, “Community, Nostalgia and the Spectacle of Masculinity”, Screen vol. 26, no. 5, 1985, pp. 18-37.
- André Bazin, “The Destiny of Jean Gabin”, What is Cinema? Vol. 2, trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971, pp. 176-178. Connections between Zola’s literary naturalism and cinema, especially poetic realism and film noir, definitely exist. The journal Excavatio, published by the Emile Zola Society AIZEN, and various excellent papers on this subject have begun important excavation work. For an introduction see Zola and Film: Essays in the Art of Adaptation, ed. Anna Gural-Migdal and Robert Singer, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2005. See especially, Alicja Helman, “Therese Raquin in a Fog-Covered Corner”, pp. 117-131 (p. 128 in particular) for a visual description of scenes in Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953) that evoke elements of the lost poetic realist tradition, and Robert Singer, “‘At the Still Point’: Framing the Naturalist Moment”, pp. 94-205.
- Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1995, pp. 19-23. See also Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, pp. 96- 128, for a stimulating discussion of poetic realism in general and Le Quai des brumes in particular. Did Jean’s dog also influence Roy Earle’s canine bad luck charm in High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)?
Le Quai des brumes (1938 France 90 mins)
Prod Co: Ciné-Alliance Prod: Gregor Rabinovitch Dir: Marcel Carné Scr: Jacques Prévert Phot: Eugen Schüfftan Ed: René Le Hénaff Art Dir: Alexandre Trauner Mus: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, Robert Le Vigan, Delmont, Almos