Although I have not seen this Marcel Carné film for more than 20 years, its images still linger. Last December (2016), when the death was announced (aged 96) of an actor who in 1938 was an enigmatic new-comer (Michèle Morgan), it was these images that returned to me. In a poll made around 1980, Quai des Brumes was voted the 8th best French film of all time (no.1 was also directed by Marcel Carné: Les Enfants Du Paradis, 1945).
“Life’s a rotten business,” says army deserter Jean (Gabin) as he hitches a ride into the foggy port of Le Havre one night. He is looking to stow aboard a ship and escape the country.
And luck seems to be on his side at first; he is adopted by a stray dog, he gets his hands on some civilian clothes, he gets a bit of money and buys a passport.
But he also meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a young woman who seems to have attracted attention of the wrong type of man – like a boyfriend Maurice, who has gone missing; like Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a gangster; and like her grotesque and graceless foster-father, Zabel (Michele Simon – who you may remember as Boudu, the vagrant).
Jean seeks to protect Nelly from these predators and to help her stand on her own feet. Of course he has fallen for the enigmatic Nelly by the time he learns of a ship leaving for Venezuela; perhaps at least one of them can be on it? Or maybe both of them? Or is that asking too much of life’s rotten business?
Although director Marcel Carné (1906-1996) did not like this term (he did not feel he was making a realist film at all), what he produced was, as critic Frank S. Nugent says, “a remarkably beautiful motion picture from the purely pictorial standpoint and a strangely haunting drama.” And according to DVD notes by Luc Sante, it is a fine example of a national cinema “that stood every inch as tall as Hollywood” in terms of its grace and beauty and power, and in the … “hazy lights, the wet cobblestones, the prehensile poplars lining the road out of town, the philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion.” Well, this is France after all!
Adapted from a novel by Pierre Dumarchais, Quai des Brumes was a huge critical and commercial success on its release in May 1938; it won both the Grand Prix National du Cinéma Français and the Prix Louis-Delluc. However, the censors had been uncomfortable about its tenor and had not allowed Gabin’s character to be explicitly label an army deserter. Carné (left) would later work in the Vichy zone, where heis constant aim was to subvert the regime’s attempts to control art.
Although Quai des Brumes made no mention of war – or the threat of war – a desperate atmosphere nevertheless pervades every frame of the film and perhaps for this reason alone, once war eventually did break out, Quai des Brumes was banned for being ‘immoral, depressing and detrimental to young people.’ Indeed a spokesman for the Vichy government famously declared: ‘If we have lost the war, it is because of Quai des Brumes.’ Marcel Carné’s reasoned response was that ‘you do not blame a barometer for forecasting the storm.’
This was the first of Carné’s collaborations with poet-scriptwriter Jacques Prévert, while Eugen Schüfftan provided the expressionistic photography; the set designs of Alexandre Trauner were ingenious and a score by Maurice Jaubert was romantic and doom-laden.
The 34-year-old Jean Gabin was already the most famous star in French cinema, while at only seventeen, Michèle Morgan was instantly hailed as the new Garbo. The character of Nelly at first seems ethereal and preoccupied, but then she comes to life in the kind of scene that would not be able to be shown in an American movie for another 20 years or more..
WAY AHEAD OF ITS TIME
At a time when Hollywood was ruled by the rigid Hayes code (which stamped out any hint of sexuality) Quai des Brumes makes no bones about a very explicit ‘morning after’ scene in a hotel room: Jean and Nelly have not only quite obviously aleady had sex, but they seem ready to go at it again when he grabs her and they embrace, falling on the bed before a fade-out can hide them from our gaze!
Their remarkably frank eroticism has been compared with that of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca (1942) – a film with which it bears quite a few similarities.
In addition, at a time when being explicit about such things was almost completely forbidden, the suggestion that Nelly’s foster-father may have molested her and moreover that he still lusts after her is boldly scripted.
After the war, ex-pat European filmmakers like Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang, and who were admirers of poetic realist films like this, either remade them or imitated them in Hollywood. These films told stories of drifters and prostitutes, petty criminals and working class people who get our synpathy because their lives seem to be at the mercy of fate – just as are the lives of these characters played by Gabin and Morgan. In America such tragedies of hope, of unrealised dreams, of mad love and a world that renders optimism simply preposterous seemed un-American. But this was because, really, they were European films They looked back as longingly to German expressionist films and to French poetic realist cinema as Nelly looks for solace and as Jean looks for a way out. They have become recognisable as a genre that we now call film noir.