nthposition online magazine

Two harbours

by Douglas Messerli

[ filmreviews ]

I almost think you have to be French to truly understand Marcel Carné’s masterful film, Port of Shadows. It’s not that the Jacques Prévert story - a love story in which fate rules - is difficult to comprehend: this sense of destiny has been there at least since the Greeks. Any American admirer of film noir would understand the dark undertones of this simple tale, although one might argue that American films noirs are always more complex and murkier in their plots. The muddled morality of this film embedded in its seemingly permanent surrounding of dense fog is not so dissimilar to the elements of early German cinema and most of British film-making. No, there’s something more elusive than all that. Carné’s characters enter the film with a sort of intense halo of fatalism about their heads: nothing good will happen because it never does; while, there are pleasant moments, of course, life is not good to people like them. It’s as if Victor Hugo’s Fantine had never truly had a dream, but simply accepted her tragic life. It is so difficult, accordingly, to explain the quality of this film to a society that believes - so it imagines - that everything will eventually turn out all right, that life is a series of constant betterments and achievements; how even to speak to a society that believes in a dream of financial and social rewards about such French ennui? Jean Gabin as Jean, an army deserter, has no illusions left as he enters the environs of the port city Le Havre. He has only his personal honor and nobility, and they mean nothing. He saves a dog by forcing a driver who has picked him up to steer out of range, yet later attempts to drive the poor beast away, nonetheless, feeding the animal even though he, himself, is nearly starving. So too does the girl (Nelly, played by Michèle Morgan) he accidentally meets, through the goodwill of a passing alcoholic (people in this world are more defined by their behavioral type that by any individual eccentricities) who takes him to the Panama’s bar, carrying with her the world’s sorrows. She, too, is hurt, a destroyed person, yet tough: she has, after all, although she can’t yet quite admit it, overheard the murder of her former boyfriend, Maurice, by her ugly godfather Zabel (Michel Simon). This couple’s encounter, the immediate attraction between the two, their later short-lived affair (one night is all that Carné allows his figures) is part and parcel of the world of destiny these figures inhabit. So, too, are they quickly caught up in the sacrificial death of the local painter (Robert Le Vigan) who, after swimming out beyond his capabilities, leaves his clothing, his brushes, and his passport for Jean to “inherit.” The gesture is noble, but it too can have no ultimate effect in this world of dark shadows. Although Jean books passage on a ship bound for Venezuela, where he might escape the long hand of fate, once he has met Nelly, he has no choice but to return to the city, saving the girl from the fiendish hands of the jealous godfather only to have to face his own comeuppance for having belittled the local thug, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). As Sartre would later express it - although far more metaphorically - there is “no exit.” Jean knew his fate the moment he left the military, and Nelly knew she would be left alone the moment she met Jean. The characters reveal this in their every movement. Jean, even as he, near starvation, cuts the bread and sausage Panama has awarded him, Nelly, in her deep, deep entrenchment within her plastic slicker, hands nearly always hidden, head pointed forward as if she were about to endure a deep rainstorm. Even Zabel seems to welcome his deserved punishment of murder by Jean.

Shot, Jean orders Nelly to kiss him quick before he expires. This is only a world of only quick-fixes, love found on the run, of one-night stands, momentary pleasures than can have no meaning beyond the seconds in which they bring pleasure.

Although Carné’s films have been described as “poetic realism,” they most emphatically have little to do with “reality” (however one defines that) and even less to do with “poetic” expression, unless you define poetry as complete sentimentalism. Rather, Carné’s and Prévert’s theater is much more archetypal, having more to do with Kabuki and puppetry figures such as Punch and Judy, actors that formally play out the same stories again and again, than with what Americans might describe as naturalistic theater. Jean and Nelly are not realistic lovers but expressions of the desire of the French to discover love and the ability to give oneself completely over to it, while knowing that that can only lead to one’s destruction.

It is no wonder that in the France of 1938, when this film first appeared - faced as it was with complete social betrayal and cultural annihilation - there was an outcry, politically speaking, against Carné’s seemingly uncontroversial movie, for it represents a kind of vision of love as surely locked into the French character as the German Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde represented the inconsumable passions of German culture. The cigarette munching, face-slapping, but tender-hearted Jean (Gabin at his best) represented a lover that might find fulfillment, but only in a single night - love could never to be sustained. It shares with Wagner’s neverland vision of consummation and sense of ever-lasting frustration, the idea of love and death being interminably intertwined.

Although the American filmmakers of 1938 might never have been able to reveal the complete satisfaction of a sexual event as Gabin and Morgan express the morning after their night together, US directors would be sure, in the morning, nonetheless, that life would go on. Love was love, death, death. Only an American could say that!

 

Aki Kaurismäki’s 2011 film, Le Havre is an agreeable if slightly sentimental tale about a former author (André Wilms), who inexplicably has given up his bohemian life to become a shoeshiner in the famed French port. At one point the character mutters something about his line of work as bringing him closer to the people, but that does not sufficiently explain why this figure, Marcel Marx, who was featured also in Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohàme was named after the great Socialist thinker. But then the director also names several of his characters after famed French film figures. Marcel’s wife (the wonderful Kati Outinen) is named Arletty, after the music hall singer and actress in several of another Marcel Carné’s pictures, the director who also set his La Quai des Brumes in La Havre. A doctor in this movie, played by the French comic director Pierre Étaix, is named Becker after French film director Jacques Becker, who in his youth worked as a head a the baggage service for a shipping line operating between Le Havre and New York. The film’s detective, Monet, somewhat similar to the detective of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, also reminds us that the artist Monet painted a series of Le Havre scenes (several of them in the US, one in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, across the street from my home), portraying the same foggy atmosphere of Carné’s. While several of these references, accordingly, do play a role in this film, it also appears that Kaurismäki simply enjoys the referential ricochets of these names.

Strangely, while in the director’s earlier film Paris was portrayed as foggy, shabby town akin to Carné’s view of Le Havre, Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is beautifully lit and, although a little shabby at the edges, is portrayed as a basically friendly city where Marx and fellow shoeshiner Chang (Quoc Cung Nguyen) stand placidly together as they greet train passengers who might desire a shine. Although he certainly does not make much money, Marx is rewarded free drinks by neighborhood bartender and the local grocer grudgingly allows him open credit. Spending only a small amount of his earnings, Marx returns home to the protective arms of Arletty and to his faithful dog, Laika (named presumably after the famed Russian dog in orbit), where he hands over his daily wages to his wife and is served up a restorative meal. When Arletty suffers what appears to be a heart attack, all neighbors come together in support.

Similarly, when Marx encounters a young African boy, who has escaped police capture upon the discovery of several African would-be immigrants hiding in a cargo container, the old man feeds the boy and takes him in, again with the open support of his friends - despite the newspaper headlines demanding the boy’s arrest. Marx even goes to the length of traveling to Calais to find a relative of the boy, and despite his wife’s illness, which necessitates regular visits to the hospital, he is able put together a concert in order to raise money to secretly ship the boy on to London, where his mother apparently lives. Even the nosey detective Monet helps Marx to get the boy out of the country. In short, while in Carné’s Le Havre there is “no escape,” in Kaurismäki’s port city everyone helps the characters to be free themselves from the predicaments and limitations of their lives.

At film’s end, even Arletty returns home, miraculously cured from what she has been previously told was an inoperable condition. As fleeting as joy was in Carné’s world, here it is almost contagious. If neither Carné’s tragic vision nor Kaurismäki’s primarily positive presentation of life is very realistic, who cares? Such is the stuff of films and books!