Posted by: Ian Briggs on 21st May 2012 at 3:40 pm
A film I saw recently at the BFI Southbank was Michel Carné’s 1938 film Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows).
Having seen a couple of French films from this period recently, I was expecting something enjoyable but fairly light and straightforward. Instead, the film was startlingly bleak, outright dark in places and understandably controversial given the time in which it was made (it was actually banned for some time in France).
More comprehensive reviews of the storyline are available here and here, but in short, a solider who has apparently deserted from the army appears en route to Le Havre, when he is spotted on the road by a passing driver. Once in Le Havre, he tries to flee the country on a boat bound for Venezuela, but he meets, and falls in love with a young girl, Nelly, whose torturous relationship with her guardian provides the main thrust of the film.
I was particularly impressed with Jean Gabin’s performance as the eponymous lead character. He was excellent in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, also recently shown at the BFI, but in Le Quai des Brumes, he leads the film almost by himself with a much more powerful role. Some of his scenes in the local shack/bar (called Panama) are brilliantly played and full of emotion but also perfectly natural. As part of a second plot-line in the film, there is also the slightly laughable appearance of the most unthreatening mobster in any film, in a story which proves central to the overall plot.
Interestingly, this review also draws parallels between Le Quai des Brumes and later Holywood films such as The Big Sleep and Casablanca, though this film is probably a bit more pessimistic throughout. It is also interesting to compare the similarities between the life in the town in this film and in Aki Kaurismaki’s recent film Le Havre.
Le Quai des Brumes was a thoroughly enjoyable film that was determined, dark and steered nicely away from the dreaded happy ending. I have also included links to some other reviews of the film below: