‘Le Quai des Brumes’, although classified at the time as the most perfect example of ‘poetic realist’, the film with its doom-laden plot, its ill-fated romance, shady underworld characters and brutal fatalism, evokes the essence of classic film noir at its most primitive and most eloquent. .
Poetic realism was a film movement in France of the 1930s and through the war years. Directors such as: Pierre Chenal, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne all created a lyrical style. Poetic realism films are "recreated realism", stylised and studio bound. They usually have a fatalistic view of life with their characters living on the margins of society, either as unemployed members of the working class or as criminals. Although the overall tone often resembles nostalgia and bitterness. They are "poetic" because of a heightened aestheticism that sometimes draws attention to the representational aspects of the films.
The poet Jacques Prévert's screenplay, his third for Carné, was adapted from Pierre Mac Orlan's Montmartre-set 1927 novel, and bristles with a truthfulness that is occasionally terrifying. Carne and Prevert’s two previous film collaborations Jenny and Drôle de drame (both 1936) were the forerunners for their great works: ‘Le Jour se Leve’ and ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’. Carné’s immense technical skill and talent for drenching his films in atmosphere, coupled with Prévert’s flair for making seemingly banal dialogue sound poetic, are powerfully illustrated in ‘Le Quai des Brumes’, which deserves its reputation as one of the greatest of all French films. However Carne sadly fell from favour with the advent of the Nouvelle Vague and the popularity of auteur theory, which prioritised personal vision above all else.
One’s immediate impression of this film is how persistently and intensely gloomy it is. The story is one of continual gloom and depression from the very outset; with all the principal characters pessimistic and weary of life; the mood aided by the look. The air of foreboding is as thick as the fog that shrouds the murky shadows of French seaport Le Havre. It is fair to assume that this film is probably not the best advertising campaign the town of Le Havre could have wished for!
The pervading romantic mood is also considerably enhanced by the Maurice Jaubert's sombre background music, as Carne clearly wanted to present a visual tone dedicated to melancholia. Elements we interpret as romantically fatalistic today must have seemed unbearably portentous immediately prior to the war. An explicitly philosophical work, its great strength lies not so much in its philosophical musings, but in the romantic relationship between its two main stars, Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan.
The story starts with Jean, played by Jean Gabin, arriving in Le Havre after deserting from the colonial army in Indochina, hiding from the authorities. The story I splayed out in seedy bars with an array of underworld characters, who add a great deal of temptations for the soldier, including the alluring Nelly, herself a run away; from her intimidating guardian Zabel, the owner of a bric-à-brac shop who is mixed up with gangsters.
The cast brings together some of the finest French actors of the time, including four monstres sacrés. Although it is Gabin and Morgan who dominate this film - looking uncannily like Bogart and Bacall in Howard Hawks’ ‘To Have and Have Not (1944) - they do not completely eclipse the contributions from their illustrious co-stars: Michel Simon as the villain Zabel, and Pierre Brasseur as the vicious pimp Lucien - and a host of exceptionally gifted character actors - Édouard Delmont, Raymond Aimos, Robert Le Vigan and René Génin - not forgetting the cute little white dog who shamelessly outstages every actor he shares a shot with. He certainly gives Uggi from ‘The Artist’ a run for his money!
Jean Gabin had emerged as a leading French star by the late 1930s, often compared to Humphrey Bogart, Gabin represents a kind of gritty, working class hero who held strong passions and this is very much his film. His earthy screen persona had been cultivated in Popular Front films including Jean Renour’s ‘La Grand Illusion’ and Julien Duvuvier’s ‘Pepe Le Moko’, who said of Gabin, "the type every Frenchman enjoys drinking red wine with!" French film critic Andre Bazin suggested that, "Gabin would never be able, no matter what the script, to portray any destiny other than his own." Nelly, a seventeen year old with a jauntily angled beret and a transparent Coco Chanel mac is played superbly by Michele Morgan in her first major role. It was the role of Nelly in ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ that established her as a star and made her one of the most sought after screen actresses of her generation. She was so revered that she was even considered for the Ingrid Bergman role in Casablanca.
‘Le Quai des Brumes’ was the first of four films in which Gabin and Morgan appeared together, forming one of French cinema’s most memorable romantic pairings. They had an on-screen romance but not off screen. Although they fell deeply in love whilst making this film, the two actors did not pursue an off-screen romance, as Morgan had no interest in starting an affair with a married man. The intensity of the feelings that Gabin and Morgan had for one another is evident in the scene in which they kiss, a scene that is charged with electrifying eroticism and tragic poignancy.
Easy to now call the film a masterpiece; however it outraged the authorities on release. It was not unanimously well-received by the critics when it was first released in 1938. Its ominous mood - doubtless influenced by the prevailing political situation in France (the failure of the Popular Front coalition government) and wider political unrest - made it a hard sell and some were quick to dismiss it as pro-Fascist propaganda.
The Parisian newspaper Le Petit journal described it as, “a film noir that is both immoral and demoralising, one that could only have a harmful effect on the public.” As there is an aura of doom and decay which infects every character with a profound sense of hopelessness, making them resemble condemned men solemnly awaiting their execution. In the wake of the collapse of France's Popular Front government, the film was seen as exacerbating the mood of despair creeping into the left. Jean Renoir labelled it "counter-revolutionary". The Vichy government denounced it as "immoral, depressing and detrimental to young people", and declared that if the war was lost, ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ could be blamed. The film’s adverse press did not prevent it from being a commercial success and its merits were honoured when it won a special prize at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.
In true film noir fashion, ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ is essentially about the illusion of freedom and the impossibility of escaping from one’s personal destiny. Virtually all of the characters in the film dream of a better life, but lack the resolve or the opportunity to make their dreams a reality. Today, ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ is highly regarded, considered not only one of Marcel Carné’s finest achievements but also one of the absolute highpoints of French filmmaking in the 1930s.