Tag Archives: Jacques Prevert

Le quai des brumes

Le Quai des Brumes

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 May 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Based on the novel by: Pierre Dumarchais

Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan

France 1938

91 mins

The label ‘poetic realism’ was applied to a whole range of films made in France throughout the 1930s, from the beautifully shot atmospheric stories of working-class life in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) to Julien Duvivier’s Casbah-set crime caper Pepe le Moko (1937) as well as to much of Jean Renoir’s 1930s output. However, the term was never more perfectly used than in describing two films made by Marcel Carné at the end of the decade: Le Jour se Lève (1939) and Le Quai des Brumes (1938).

The latter stars Jean Gabin as an army deserter arriving in the French port of Le Havre looking to flee the country. He meets a girl (Michèle Morgan) and falls in love. The simplicity of this is explained by some wonderful dialogue by the poet-cum-screenwriter Jacques Prévert: ‘It’s like in a film,’ Gabin’s character claims, ‘I see you and I like you. It’s love at first sight’. Gabin’s world-weary yet romantic tough guy prefigures Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca and many a film noir hero. Yet, despite his masculinity and self-confidence, he is unlike his Hollywood counterpart in that he is never really the instigator of the plot, but merely its doomed hero. The strong hand of fate rules the narrative - even the moments of good fortune, such as when Jean finds civvies to change into, complete with shoes the right size, simply serve to remind us that it’s the whim of fortune that is in the driving seat, not the protagonist. Such tragically doomed love stories were typical of the poetic realist style - apologies if this is a spoiler but to those in the know, merely the name Jean Gabin above the titles generally guarantees an unhappy ending (even the trailer gives away the end). It is not so much a question of will he make it - will he escape to Venezuela with his dog and his girl? - but how will he fail. It was this stoic, perhaps defeatist, attitude that led to someone in the Vichy Government to claim: ‘If we have lost the war, it is because of Le Quai des Brumes.’ Carné’s response was to ask, ‘Does one blame the weather on the barometer?’

What is surprising for such a key poetic realist film is that, despite focusing on working-class characters and being set in an industrial port, it eschews much of what we now consider ‘realist’ filmmaking. There are no naturalistic non-professional actors but big box office stars (Gabin) and great film character actors (Michel Simon). There are no handheld cameras and natural lighting: Carné’s films are studio films of the highest artifice, created by highly skilled artists and technicians. Although a few location shots are used, the ‘real’ world of industrial ports, dilapidated bars and rain-soaked streets is largely carefully recreated and artfully shot on a soundstage.

Made years before French critics had even considered the idea of cinematic authorship, Le Quai des Brumes stands as an example of collaborative filmmaking of the highest order. With the near collapse of the French studio system (Gaumont, Pathé withdrawing from film production in the mid-30s) newly formed film companies in France seemed to last as long as the governments of the time (months or even weeks). Yet, despite this, an all-star production team was assembled. The sets were designed by Alexandre Trauner, whose stylised recreations of the world of working people in the industrial port town work to heighten and skew the reality. Panama’s ramshackle bar by the sea seems almost dreamlike. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert’s dialogue combines the melodramatic, the poetic and street slang. His characters - although almost types (the petty gangster, the drunk, evil stepfather) - all have their little idiosyncrasies. Eugen Schüfftan, who went on to shoot the phantasmagoric Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 1960), provides the expressionist shadowy cinematography that was to influence film noir a few years later. And also deserving a special mention is Maurice Jaubert’s score and Coco Chanel’s iconic transparent plastic raincoat for Michèle Morgan.

What is often forgotten when discussing poetic realism is how entertaining the films are, and none is more so than Le Quai des Brumes. Many of these films were box-office smashes in France at the time and Jean Gabin was a major star. This film shows why: he dominates the film even though he is surrounded by such odd and colourful characters, and despite (or because of) his minimal acting, he has a unique screen presence.

Paul Huckerby

Les enfants du paradis

Les enfants du paradis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 November 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur


163 mins

It’s a wonder that this wonder-filled film ever got made. Work began on Les enfants du paradis in 1943 when France was occupied by the Germans, there were power shortages, rationed film stock, and a suspicious Vichy government that declared that films couldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. The epically involving Les enfants du paradis runs at three hours, and the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner were forced to make their contributions clandestinely. To have made a simple, domestic drama in these circumstances would have been impressive, but Marcel Carné’s film is a riotous, romantic costume melodrama, with magnificent sets: the action takes place in a foggy duelling ground, backstage at the theatre, in a grand mansion and a rough and ready rooming house with over a thousand extras, many who were in the Resistance, milling through vividly recreated 1840s Paris.

The opening shot is a tumultuous, joyful street scene, a miracle of perspective in which a thronging crowd mass along Le Boulevard du Crime, in the theatrical district, where a dizzying array of street acts, from strong men to tight-rope walkers advertise forthcoming attractions. The camera gradually focuses on individuals in the crowd, Garance, the enigmatic heroine of the film, played with a cool, self-possessed insouciance by Arletty, and aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who flirts with her. Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, Garance is saved by the melancholy Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who wittily mimes the true circumstances of the crime, earns a rose from Arletty’s breast, and is immediately overcome with love. There are two more men in Arletty’s life: Lacenaire, a ruthless dandy of the criminal underworld with a villainous moustache, a frilled shirt and a neat line in bleak, cut-throat wit, and the Count Edouard de Montray, a cold-hearted, upper-class duellist who makes his aristocratic appearance towards the end of the first part of the film.

Affection, unrequited love, jealously, obsession and artistic ambition are played out against this theatrical background. It’s a complicated film that explores the nature of performance, with Baptiste’s clever mimes adding an extra layer to poet Jacques Prévert’s witty, stylised script. Baptiste acts out his heartbreak on the Funambules’ stage, as he falls in love with a statue, played by Garance, who comes to life and heads off with Harlequin, acted out by Frédérick. In the second half of the film (entitled ‘The Man in White’), the love story remains as complicated as ever, an unhappy, but involving drama of domestic pragmatism versus melodramatic passion. The ending returns to the crowded boulevard, crammed with festive Pierrots, for a spell-binding finale.

Carné’s film about actors acting was made in the most trying of circumstances, but the elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and lovely, poignant orchestral score reveal nothing of the harsh realities of life in occupied France (many of the extras were starving members of the Resistance). The post-war nouvelle vague critics initially admired this impressive example of French poetic realism, but with its careful attention to detail and stylised script, it was a far cry from their own, spontaneous guerrilla-style approach to storytelling and filming and they soon turned against Carné, dismissing his work as the quaint, hidebound ‘cinéma de papa’. Yet Les enfants du paradis, for all its costume drama accoutrements, has a surprisingly subversive heroine in Garance. Older than the typical starlet, enigmatic rather than beautiful, she is entirely self-possessed, her character is adventurous, mysterious, prepared to experience all that life has to offer, and a deliciously elusive counterpoint to the emotional melodrama that surrounds her. Even Truffaut conceded in the end: ‘I have made 23 films, well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis‘.

Eithne Farry