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.