There’s an almost prescient fatalism in many French movies of the late 1930s. Dark themes, shadowy aesthetics, and shady characters articulate a cynical outlook for France’s future and none embodied that trend more than Michel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Carné succeeded in capturing the festering pessimism and ennui of French culture and society in this film so well that it supposedly prompted one French government official to blame the fall of France to Nazi Germany on Quai des brumes. Carné is said to have responded to the charge by saying one doesn’t blame a barometer for a storm. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it is worth noting that Carné viewed his film as a barometer of sorts for the unease and discontent of the French people that would, in a matter of months, prove founded.
The movie follows a fateful day in the life of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserter from the French Foreign Legion as he arrives in the port of Le Havre, on the look out for a ship to get him out of the country before the authorities apprehend him. He finds refuge at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town where other outcasts and runaways gather and it is there that he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She has also run away, but from her lecherous step-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Their relationship pits Jean against Zabel and Nelly’s wanna-be tough guy boyfriend, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). Jean gives Nelly the courage to finally stand up to Zabel’s unwanted advances and envision a life away from the drudgery, but Jean is trapped between his new love and the need to get out of the country.
The genius of Carné’s film is, like most people, no one in the movie is particularly noble. Our protagonist is Jean, but he isn’t a paragon of virtue. And on the flip side, the villains aren’t particularly evil. Simon and Brasseur play them more as weak, scared little boys, unable to chart any other course for their lives. Like Jean, they are trapped by their own misdeeds and flail around in an attempt to appear in control. Zabel clings to a thin veneer of respectability, covering his dabbling in crime, and Lucien pretends to be a tough guy, mimicking the movies of James Cagney or Paul Muni., when he’s really a cowardly little boy.
Carné is unsparingly brutal in his condemnation of French society. Jean and Nelly have to flee from two institutions meant to protect its citizens (the military) and nurture new ones (the family). They don’t find safety anywhere except for a dingy bar that, since we have the virtue of hindsight, eerily feels like a hideout for the French Underground. Carné populates the bar with anyone who might feel left behind by the collapse of the Popular Front and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, including a disillusioned young poet who takes his life early in the picture, leaving his clothes for Jean.
Quai des brumes is a melancholy portrait of a specific time and place. Everyone knew they were headed for disaster, but no one knew what they could do to prevent it. Some retreated and escaped, like Jean and Nelly, while others tried to make the best out of it for themselves with little regard for who they might wrong, like Zabel and Lucien. And still others took their lives, unable to face the world without the France in which they grew up.
In some ways the (apocryphal?) French official who claimed they fell to Nazi Germany because of this movie is correct. Carné gave voice to the unchannelled discontent and frustration with the direction of their country without suggesting solutions. The tragic ending of the film told its audience there was nothing they could do, the end for them and their country is coming. All they could do was sit back and wait.