Monday, June 17, 2013

Port of Shadows (1938)

Director: Marcel Carné


Outside the glittery films that are produced in Hollywood during its golden age come a variety of different styles from other countries all over the world. In France during this period begins a style of movie that is on par in production quality, but manifests a less polished sense of story and characters. This genre, dubbed poetic realism, is shown in one of its earliest and finest examples in Port of Shadows. In this picture about the emotions of individuals audiences witness a film that represents the more rough-edge world that parallels real life as we are drawn into the story of the flawed people that are involved.

Port of Shadows is a drama of an army deserter attempting to find a way to start his life anew and the young lady he meets in a small town who feels very much the same things about her own life attempting to break away from her godfather. Jean (Jean Gabin) finds himself in a small port town looking for work on a ship to make a fresh start for himself after abandoning the army when he meets a 17 year-old girl, Nelly (Michèle Morgan), who has run away from her godfather. Finding a romantic kinship with each other, Nelly returns to her godfather Zabel (Michel Simon) who often seems to interrupt their future meetings. This is because Zabel too is in love with Nelly, with her discovering he had killed her last boyfriend out of jealousy, but her new love with Jean is blackmailed with Zabel’s knowing he is a deserter, keeps the lovers apart. Jean would rescue Nelly from her godfather, but pays the price for finding new enemies in the town.

The picture has a very different feeling overall from most all pictures of the period. Things feel grittier, dirty with unkempt edges. This is not the same kind of grit as to a Warner Bros. film, which is more about villains and corruption. Here people are slouched, clothes are wrinkled, and Jean Gabin talks out the side of his mouth with a lit cigarette hanging out the other corner. It evokes actions and moment that come more from the interactions of the real world. This style, dirty breath of fresh air, would be known as poetic realism, the art of mirroring the world in more close sullied detail.

A godfather to this art of filmmaking was the director of the film Marcel Carné. A young man in his mid 20s, Carné had grown up loving the movies, first as a film critic at a young age, followed by working in the business both at home and abroad in England. He saw something in motion pictures that he could take the polished production quality and make it record actions that were not as much fanciful, but more symbolized what it was like to interact in real life. He would have his characters slightly hunched, or have Jean Gabin talk with his mouth full while eating a sausage. These touches made the characters more real. The emotions of this film’s love story is heightened by its actors acting more along the lines as actual individuals would; limiting his actors rather that making them over extravagant. Less was far more in this sense.

Headlining the picture was two of France’s most well-known and well respected actors. Jean Gabin had made himself into one the country’s top leading men, with his own hard edge and a demeanor that evoked internal conflict. Michel Simon was one of the more unique actors in style. His odd look and somewhat bushy beard would go perfectly with the poetic realism of the film. It is the dominance of his character that makes him a fine actor. He turns this humble store owner with a seemingly rebellious goddaughter into a maddened man that could murder for the sake of keeping her to himself. Both actors are treasures of the French screen.

Gabin and Morgan
To play the leading lady of the picture is eighteen year old Michèle Morgan. An aspiring actress from early in her teens, Morgan breaks through with her performance with the two male stars across from her. She plays a rather mature looking 17 year-old, but has the innocence of a jaded young lady on the cusp of breaking away from the umbrella of her guardian, but never quite doing it. Her character really takes off when she and Jean interact after making love. It is there that Nelly blooms into maturity, ready for the world beyond her current status with the help of Jean, but would be held back by Zabel until she would be rescued. She becomes the center of the film, despite the camera following Jean the entire time. It is her acting and her story that the audience cares about the most, as she has more possibility, instead of the mystery man that is Jean.

The style and story of the picture is a tragic and sad tale. The poetic realism in this case did not allow for humor and becomes a rather haunting story. It would leave audiences with a sense that they saw a very good picture, but also leave them depressed, both for the characters and for the country. Jean Gabin’s character was a deserter of the army because of his dislike of war and choosing not to fight made people to think that this poetic realism, this film included, might have depressed the country to a point that that when war broke out in Europe France had lost morale, aiding Germany to defeat the country. This was all speculation, of course.

Port of Shadows would be privileged as the best picture in all of France by critics and other film personalities in 1938, awarded the coveted Louis Dellus Prize which crown the film for that very honor. It stands as one of the earliest and best examples of the poetic realism movement in French cinema. Eventually this style would spread to Hollywood, who in their own way would glamorize it, but this art here was beginning to imitate life a bit more than it had in the recent past.

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