Monday, April 11, 2011

FI: Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes)

Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes)
France, 1938
Directed by Marcel Carné

"Freedom is a fine thing."

Like many of Marcel Carné's films, and those of his contemporaries and colleagues associated with the Poetic Realism school of 1930s France, Port of Shadows is a movie not so much about escaping as the desire to escape. Jean Gabin's Jean is an Army deserter, trying to escape that life for a new beginning. Michèle Morgan's Nelly is a young woman trying to escape the suffocating arms of her jealous "guardian," Zabel (Michel Simon), who attempts to use influence and control to escape his ungainly appearance. And Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) is a neglected kid from a good family, trying to escape by playing at being a gangster and finding himself in over his head.

Poetic realism, as a movement, was inherently melodramatic and emotionally exaggerated, not quite to the same degree as Hollywood melodramas/"weepies," but still marked by heightened intensity. It was also unequivocally dark, fatalistic, and cynical. Gabin, the style's leading male star, became known for this type of role: mysterious, tough, brooding, noble (if not always law-abiding), doomed. In many ways, the movement served as the major emotional influence on the later film noir style.

Indeed, Port of Shadows has many elements later found in noirs: down-on-their-luck characters; a proto-femme fatale; artful-yet-hardboiled dialog; criminals and other disreputable types in prominent roles. And, most importantly, an air of dark, inescapable futility. It's a slow-moving picture, as though its plot is as shrouded by darkness and fog as its visuals, but as it plugs on to an inevitable-but-still-impactful conclusion, it gradually pulls you in. Poetic realism hasn't aged as well as some other styles from its era, though Shadows turns into one of the genre's more watchable entries. Still, it might be of limited interest to modern audiences aside from film buffs and genre enthusiasts.

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