Reading, Watching 05.21
Shadows and Fog
This is a regular feature for paid subscribers, wherein I write a little bit about what I’ve been recently reading, watching, and/or listening to. I hope you enjoy!
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Yesterday at MoMA, I saw Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (1938), a prime example of the genre known as poetic realism and one of the first films to be labeled “film noir.” Jean Gabin plays an Army deserter trying to hitch his way on to a steamer heading out of Le Havre. But before he can escape, he gets caught up with Balzacian cast of characters living among the shadows and fog of the port. Lucy Sante has a great short essay on the Criterion Collection website about the movie:
Port of Shadows possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema. Gabin—eating sausage with a knife or talking around a cigarette butt parked in the corner of his mouth or administering a backhanded slap to Brasseur’s kisser—is the quintessential French tough guy, as iconic a figure as Bogart playing Sam Spade. Michèle Morgan, ethereal and preoccupied, may pale a bit in comparison to some of her sisters in Parisian movies of the time (Arletty, for example), but she comes to life in bed, in a scene you can’t imagine occurring in an American movie before 1963 or so. The hazy lights, the wet cobblestones, the prehensile poplars lining the road out of town, the philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion—such things defined a national cinema that might have been dwarfed by Hollywood in terms of reach and profit but stood every inch as tall as regards grace and beauty and power.
Also very much worth checking out is the film notes on Port of Shadows on the SUNY Albany site:
Some critics have even said that these films speak of the allegorical failure of a nation in turmoil to arrive at some state of self-knowing that would armor it against fascism, against war, against ignominious defeat, against Occupation, against the disaster of French participation in the Holocaust. Indeed, Vichy apologists would later accuse the popular and fatalistic Port of Shadows of having been indirectly responsible for France's humiliating defeat by the Germans in 1940. Director Marcel Carné' famously replied, "Does one blame the weather on the barometer?"