Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

boudu1“He spat on Balzac!”

Jean Renoir always had a preoccupation with class divides and Boudu showcases that same blatant juxtaposition of class, or more precisely, the lifestyles of the middle class versus a lowly tramp. Except in this specific instance, the tramp (the indelible Michel Simon) could care less about the gap. He thumbs his nose at any charity and makes no effort to conform to the reins put on him by the reputable of middle-class society.

The man who steps to the fore is a middle-aged married bookkeeper who has the hots for his housekeeper. With his wandering spyglass, he spots the hapless Boudu jump into the Seine. From that point, he leaps into action toddling out to the street followed by the crowds of onlookers. He’s the first to plunge himself into the depths to bring the unfortunate soul to safety, and his middle-class brethren laud him for his supreme act of charity. But Monsieur Lestingois does not stop there, insisting that the wretched man be brought to his nearby flat.

boudu4Soon Boudu is wrapped up in middle-class luxury that he didn’t ask for, at the behest of Edouard who takes an initial liking to this bushy-haired man he happened upon. After all, he is intent on playing savior and Boudu obliges. It’s in these forthcoming scenes that Renoir examines class in a satirical way, feeling rather like a precursor to some of Bunuel’s later work, without the religious undertones. And yet for some reason, we cannot help but like Boudu a lot more. True, he is loud, messy, rude and unruly, but there’s something undeniably charming about his life philosophy. There are no pretenses or false fronts. He lets it all hang out there. In this regard, Michel Simon is the most extraordinary of actors, existing as a caricature with seemingly so little effort at all. He steals every scene whether he’s propped up between two door frames or cutting out a big swath of his beard for little reason.

In the meantime, he wears their clothes and eats their food, but he doesn’t have to concede to their rules. Boudu ends up winning the lottery of 100,000 francs, while unwittingly stealing away his esteemed benefactor’s unhappy wife. Whereas Boudu has the audacity to do the unthinkable out in plain view, he’s perhaps the most brutally honest character in the film. Everyone else veils their vices and hides their true intentions behind good manners and closed doors. But there has to be a point where all parties involved are outed and the moment comes when husband and wife simultaneously catch each other.

boudu3Charity in a sense is met with scorn, but it feels more nuanced than, say, Bunuel’s Viridianna (1961). In many ways, Boudu seems like a proud individual or at least an independent one. He hardly asks for the charity of the wealthy, and he’s content with his lot in life, even to the extent of death. It’s also not simply chaos for the sake of it, and he hardly lowers himself to the debauchery of Bunuel’s unruly bunch. Still, he obviously rubs the more civilized classes the wrong way, by scandalizing their way of life and trampling on their social mores without much thought. It’s perfectly summed up by the last straw when  a fuming Edouard incredulously exclaims, “He spat on Balzac.” The nerve!

The ultimate irony is that Boudu ends up in the water once again, and he’s not the only one this time. This also serves to take Renoir back into his element, because he’s always at his best in the great outdoors where the natural beauty of parks and rivers become his greatest ally in his misc en scene. Still, his framing of shots always gives way to a beautiful overall composition inside and out. Boudu is no different. You simply have to sit back and enjoy it like a pleasant outing on the Seine.

4/5 Stars

L’Atalante (1934)

LatalanteHere is perhaps one of the greatest wedding processions we could ever hope to see. Buster Keaton is more outrageously funny in Seven Chances, but this one is solemn, and somehow still funny in its own way. And that’s what is most striking about L’Atalante (which also serves as the name of the boat of choice). This film seems so serious and strait-laced, you might say, and yet it brims with comedy. It’s the type of everyday comedy that makes us laugh even now. Funny looking characters, odd voices, a plethora of cats all over the place. There’s no way for that to get lost in translation, and it remains quirky and engaging 80 years later.

It also happens to be a beautiful film exemplified by a newly-wedded bride walking the prow of a boat with the fog billowing around her. Or perhaps it’s two lovers embracing passionately and a smile bursting on the face of the woman. It’s so visceral, so engaging in its displays of love, energy, and emotion. In this way, it brings to mind other love stories of the age like Sunrise, It Happened One Night, and certainly the early works of Jean Renoir. Except the thing here is that director Jean Vigo never made another film after L’Atalante. He entered bad health even during filming and died soon afterward in his early 30s, but he left behind a masterpiece.

In short, the story revolves around four main characters living life together on a boat named L’Atalante. Jean is the captain and groom who has picked a beautiful wife named Juliette who is going to share his existence on the sea. His first mate is the weathered and scruffy Pere Jules. He might have a rough exterior, but he and his cabin boy are full of bumbling and buffoonery that endears them to all.

For the two lovebirds, Paris is the enchanting destination for a fantastic makeshift honeymoon, but it also proves to test their relationship from the get-go, since Jean is extremely jealous and a street peddler openly flirts with Juliette. It’s a tragic turn in their love story which leads to Juliette looking for a way home and Jean sinking into a state of depression aboard his boat. That’s what makes their ultimate reunion all the sweeter.

Thus, L’Atalante blends a timeless topic like love with little moments of magic that bubble up from within these scenes. Whether it is Juliette walking the streets window shopping, or Pere Jules giving a lens into his past with all the souvenirs he has accrued over the years. Without a doubt, he was my favorite character. I have never quite seen anything like him.

4.5/5 Stars