Jean Paul Sartre probably saw this film when it opened in 1938. Did he go with Simone de Beauvoir? Did they identify with Gabin and Morgan?FilmcritQuai des Brumes – Marcel Carne Fr 1938 – Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan
Screened Star and Shadow Newcastle UK; 1st April 2007; ticket price £4-00
Retrocrit: Jean Paul Sartre probably saw this film when it opened in 1938.
Did he go with Simone de Beauvoir? Did they identify with Gabin and Morgan?
Viewed today La Quai des Brumes looks like it has been premised on an existential text in set in the fog of the pre-World War ll era. It’s made in France in 1938 at the time of the publication of Sartre’s first novel La Nausee (of which the Penguin edition was a common accessory to 60’s black garbed angst) which developed Heidigger’s philosophical ideas about the nature of existence into a literary form. Quai des Brumes(QdB) lays out a similar philosophical agenda in an era where sick Europe gazing into the rise of absurd murderous atavistic politics and the abyss of nazi terror found itself unable to respond. It’s an era of moral equivalence and inability to act in response to evil. An era in which society in a state of entropy was just passing the time sipping and supping, waiting for the inevitable cataclysm and the final render of accounts. Bit like today maybe. In 1938 existentialism with its emphasis on existing now, the absurd, perception and the failure of reason wasn’t something that people had to be taught: it was out on the streets. In the air, the cafes bars and clubs, the music – mainly jazz and the movies. An attitude for living through the times and like the smoke from the cigarettes, deeply internalised.
The core of the film is the performance of Jean Gabin, the deserting soldier on a line of flight a journey from nowhere to nowhere or anywhere. His presence pervades the moral heart of the film – with similar power but different effect to his contemporary Bogart. Bogart is an agent of a judgemental system usually based on an outsider’s idea of justice. Gabin is moral in the sense of not being judgmental, of being true to the imperatives of his existence distrusting all judgemental systems whatever their rationality.
Gabin’s acting style tends towards doing little. In QdB his minimal gestural language is central to the moulding of the film as a contemporary state of mind. His face and eyes are perfectly tuned in QdB as a certain kind of statement in time. I think that the elemental mode of Gabin’s face in QdB is ‘seeing’. The seeing eyes. Gabin does not employ expressive or emotive mode. Compared to today’s pouting grimacing gurning acting crowd, or to the one dimensional fixed faciality adopted by players to get them through feature films, Gabin’s non movement is a revelation. Aided by Carne’s direction Gabin sees into every situation that he encounters – perhaps like the café people seeing what was happening to the Jews in Germany – but is not inclined to take action except to communicate that he has seen. Action of course he does take when the events provoke. The action sequences as conceived in QdB are cursory anticlimactic and mechanically choreographed, in effect down played: things that have to be done in order to get back to the film. The film is not the action. The action events – fights etc – are shot in a naturalistic rather than realistic register. They are simply devices for moving on from one situation to another.
QdB is all shot on sets. The design of settings is such that they could be anywhere. There are few overt signs that point to specificity of place whether it’s the hotel rooms, the domestic interiors, the bars or the quayside. They have an intrinsic nowhere feel, they are nondescript borders. This is a conceptual idea that is developed by filmmakers in the ‘40s and 50’s who take states of consciousness as a central concern. The unity and fixation of purpose is no less evident in Carne’s film hence the primacy of the idea of fog, a weather condition that makes everything look the same. Out of the mist which is both real and moral Gabon and Morgan step out in clear definition towards the absurd but unsurprising ending.
Two final points about QdB. First: the coat worn by Michelle Morgan as Nellie is quite amazing. I think it’s made from some kind of transparent plastic material and to me it seems disarmingly modern or perhaps timeless. Transparency can serve many different purposes. I think it’s point here is to say: I have nothing to hide: my existence is bared to your gaze but beyond what you see, there lies something you can know. Second: Jean Gabin has in the film a sort of alter ego in the form of a dog. The incident in the opening sequence whereby the dog attaches itself to him triggers the focal concerns of the film. When asked why he put his own life at risk to save the dog’s life Gabin responds that a life is a life. The relationship between Gabin and the dog is totally unsentimental but it runs the duration of the film and then some, leaving you with an idea.