September 14, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Port of Shadows (1938)

by Vadim Rizov

Port of Shadows

The misty streets of Le Havre are home to cloudy minds and spirits all round in Marcel Carné's 1938 Port of Shadows. (The film premieres today in a new DCP restoration at NYC's Film Forum.) "There's no fog in here," bar owner Panama (Édouard Delmon) tells military deserter Jean (Jean Gabin) about his dilapidated shack. "It's always fair weather." Taking nighttime shelter, Jean meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan) in the back room. "One look at you, love at first sight," he'll tell her later. "Just like in the movies." A highly self-conscious film aware that well-trod conventions already exist for the progression of unlikely love affairs, Port of Shadows replaces the inevitability of romantic spark with the more banal inevitability of some "scum" or "swine" (Jean's most common words) coming along and screwing up anything nice in an already-difficult world.

Port of Shadows

Jean has no interest in anything but getting out of France. A dog follows him, and at first he tells it to go away, but he's no idiot about getting the girl: when Nelly asks if it's his, he says yes. Jean Gabin as "Jean" was already a huge star thanks to 1937's crime drama Pepe Le Moko. Port of Shadows was the first of three consecutively released films (from May 1938 to June 1939) that ranked among the ten highest grossing movies of the decade in France. Followed by Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine and Gabin's reteaming with Carné in 1939, Daybreak, Port of Shadows makes up a downbeat succession of blockbusters in which (scholar Brett Bowles noted in 2005 in The Historical Journal) the actor is a "marginal, working-class protagonist [...] who fights against injustice but each time is killed by a fatalistic clockwork of forces beyond his control," movies acting as "collective spectacles of mourning" after the collapse of the Popular Front resistance movement.

In vaguely unpromising conditions (the politics of Jean's desertion are significantly unmentioned, as are international relations in any form), people cultivate hobbies to pass the time. Nelly's shopkeeper godfather Zabel (Michel Simon) is a classical music devotee who denounces the profanations of jazz, a snotty cultural signifier of his rottenness. Zabel's a master criminal who enters the film carrying a package containing (as faintly implied) a severed human head. Panama is obsessed with his former nautical career: his prized possession is a ship in a bottle, and he keeps rambling about his voyage of 1906. One of Panama's regulars is a painter (Robert Le Vigan), who commits suicide for theoretical reasons, the logical conclusion to his frustration with his inability to make an artistic breakthrough: he becomes the drowning man he's always painting.

Port of Shadows

Comically hyper-masculine and communicating in punches whenever possible, Jean (foregrounding the star as a version of his already recognized persona) establishes his principles by fighting two men on Nelly's behalf. Besides the vile, creepily possessive Zabel, there's local tough Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), who's relatively sharply-dressed but too pallid to glower menacingly. Jean literally slaps him around. "I'll prove I'm a man," Lucien swears when he decides to kill him, lacking Jean's (dubious) inner moral compass to regulate his violent outbursts.

Jean eventually finds release in art. Disguised in the dead painter's clothes, strolling by the docks with his supplies, Jean strikes up a conversation with a ship's doctor, who offers a berth on their voyage to Venezuela. "Don't tell me you're a cubist," the physician recoils in mock-horror when questioning Jean about his work. On the fringes of society, esoteric interests briefly provide hope for a better future. Port of Shadows is accordingly shrouded in terrifically cinematic mist, stylizing a dowdy, down-and-out series of functional sets (Panama's bar is lots of wood and almost nothing else). Alternately dreamy and depressive, mirroring Jean's own turbulence, Port of Shadows remains impressively strange, arriving at a gloomy end through sometimes goofy encounters with men whose relationship to the arts define their personalities, character sketches taking up more time than the ostensible plot.

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Posted by ahillis at September 14, 2012 10:27 AM