StudioCanal embarks on the second round of its self-styled StudioCanal Collection which, it says here, brings together “the very best of cinema”. Of course, since this is the second round, one might be forgiven for being a tad cynical about the ‘very best’ claim. It’s like the old ads for “The Best Album in the World Ever … Volume 2”, a triumph of marketing over logic. What we have, instead, are films that are not the obvious usual suspects, but rarer and, in some cases, more interesting films.
Take, for example, Marcel Carne’s Le Quai Des Brumes – or Port of Shadows, if you prefer. Many pundits consider his later film, Les Enfants du Paradis to be his definitive statement on the Second World War since it is seditious and uncompromising and shot entirely under the noses of the Nazis. But that was the end of the War … Quai des Brumes was made shortly before the war, in a fatalistic time when everyone knew it was inevitable. It deals with a very different world, a world that was about to disappear, except it lives on in this film. See it restored on Blu-Ray now.
An example of what they call ‘poetic realism’, this is a fable, both timeless and very much of its time. It tells a story of enduring human emotions and conditions, but does so in a way that reflects the growing sense of despair rising in Europe in the latter-half of the 30s. The future is unsure (even more than it, frankly, always is) and this is symbolised in the film by Carne’s use of shadows and fog … The characters can’t see where they’re going either literally or figuratively.
French mega-star Jean Gabin (who was, ironically under contract to the Nazi-occupied UFA film studio at the time) is the typically French protagonist – in that he is sanguine when at peace, yet explosively temperamental when not. Gabin was a fated character and the audience loved to watch him suffer. But he does it stylishly. He does everything stylishly. He even wears his hat and cigarette at jaunty angles that Humphrey Bogart would soon emulate. He is also a typically French romantic lead – and I mean ‘romantic’ in several senses – because not only does he woo the female lead, he also treads the line between optimism and despair as a man who has deserted the army, sick of the violence and the conformity. He simply wants to leave that all behind and start again.
In some ways he is the template for Belmondo’s villainously charismatic Laszlo in Godard’s À bout de soufflé over twenty years later.
He was France’s biggest movie star at the time, trading on his enigmatic, troubled interior rather than his movie-star exterior – since he has a face like well-worn leather … Walter Matthau without the sense of mischief. But he fought for the projects he believed in, protecting his director from the changing values of the producers and get this film made the way he and Carne originally envisioned it. He had star power and he used it to create a film full of complex, troubling ideas. Certainly troubling in a Europe teetering on the brink of war.
He spends his first night in Le Havre, hiding in a ramshackle bar where he is surrounded by solemn, philosophical locals. The bar owner seems unreasonably optimistic: “There’s no fog here” he tells Gabin – and the barometer is nailed pointing at fair weather to maintain the illusion. Jean has already discussed the fog he has in his mind so we can see that the fog the characters discuss – and that Carne fills many of his scenes, has a metaphorical value. Things are not clear in a morally complex universe.
Other characters in the bar include Michel, a suicidal artist, who is fatalistically bemoaning the fact that he can’t see beauty, only suffering … “I’d see crime in a rose”. Then there is the frosty brunette, Nelly (Michele Morgan), who has almost as many secrets as Jean. Her perfect glamour stands in stark contrast to the grimness around her – and she becomes a beacon of hope for the various men around her. But this is a film that, ultimately, believes hope is an illusion.
These characters are not there by accident nor, for that matter, is the setting in and around the port accidental – because a port is a place almost outside of geography … The rules of the country around it are often different in the port itself, a place of immigration and emigration, where people can escape or change their past. A place where people leave!
Nelly also attracts the eye of flaky small-time gangster, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) who, upon crossing swords with Jean, is revealed as the coward all bullies at heart are. Jean slaps him, an emasculating move which all-but reduces the gangster to tears. You just know there are going to be repercussions from that!
And so the film gradually evolves into a melodrama, with Nelly becoming as passively entranced by Jean’s inconsiderable charms as female characters of the period invariably fell under the spell of their cleft-chinned heroes. And she, quite inadvertently, sparks off a spiral of jealous violence within the little community which draws all concerned down into the murky depths of that metaphorical fog and those symbolic shadows.
The 1.66:1 aspect transfer looks generally clear, but there is still evidence of wear and tear!
The film was treated poorly after its release, all of the darker aspects of the characters (are there are many) were cut out, in deference to a war-time audience that wanted only positive entertainment. Considerable effort has been put into retrieving the censored material and re-assembling the film to its original 1938 form.
They went back to the original negative, saved it from decay and scanned it using state-of-the-art 2K technology. Whatever that means.
They have certainly cleared the picture up, but some scenes – particularly the early exteriors, still suffer from fading and blemishing … But the restorers were keen to leave some of that in as they felt it was important that the film bear some hallmarks of its great age. Therefore, the focus remains soft in some shots (particularly establishing shots) and there is evidence of grain in the close-ups … But you want to see the grain in a film this old!
They haven’t overly-corrected the contrast so the film mostly consists of shades of grey … No doubt a deliberate artistic decision of Carne’s for a film which concerns itself with the morally grey issues of life in a time of confusion and despair.
It may seem wasteful to give this disc a full DTS HD Master audio 2.0 Mono track, since films of this vintage almost always have a thin, flat audio track with limited use of effects and music. In this case, since the film is almost entirely people in rooms talking, the clarity is unusual and gratifying.
On the Port (45 mins) – Made by StudioCanal for the French release of this disc, this documentary – in French with subs – discusses the film’s troubled production and its importance in French cinema. It is mostly talking heads type interviews with French film scholars and archivists, rather than film-makers, but is an enlightening ‘beginners guide’ to putting the film in its proper context.
Introduction by Ginette Vincendeau (7 mins) . Vincendeau, a professor of Film Studies, used to work at Warwick University in my day, but becoming Britain’s foremost expert on European (and particularly French) cinema meant the Midlands couldn’t hold her forever and now she lectures at King’s College London. What her intro lacks in length it makes up for in authority.
Restoring Le Quai des Brumes (10 mins) In French with subs – An illustrated talking-head interview with the people who oversaw the complex process of reconstructing and preserving the film. This just underscores how lucky we are to still have access to some of these ‘ancient’ films.
Although it was missing from my review copy, the disc also comes with a booklet featuring a more in-depth analysis by Prof. Vincendeau.
Quai Des Brumes is available on Blu-ray now.
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