Criterion Sunday 245: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938)

People talk about this being a proto-noir, and I’ll defer to those more knowledgeable about their genres than I am, but it somehow feels less doomed, though it’s bleakly fatalistic in its way. It does, however, have an amazing sense of setting, as fog constantly closes in around all the characters in the port setting of Le Havre, shot by the great Eugen Schüfftan, who did Metropolis amongst others and so has a hand in defining how noir might (and would come to) look. It’s been described as “poetic realism”, and this feels like Carné’s thing in this film, harking back to earlier examples of the style through the casting of L’Atalante‘s Michel Simon. Jean Gabin’s army deserter Jean finds himself trying his best to stay out of trouble, but as they say trouble constantly seems to stick to him, like the fog, the oppressive sets, and the petulant baby-faced pretend-gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) who’s on his case the whole time. It’s all rather glorious.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné | Writer Jacques Prévert (based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan) | Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan | Starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 March 2019

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Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 239: Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)/Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) || Director Jean Renoir | Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff | Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019

Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) || Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Isuzu Yamada | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, DVD, Thursday 14 February 2019

Criterion Sunday 172: Pépé le Moko (1937)

I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
  • There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
  • An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
  • A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
  • Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak | Cinematographer Christian Matras | Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014

Pépé le Moko (1937)


FILM REVIEW || Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 19 July 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© DisCina

I’ve written already about the way films can introduce us as viewers to strange and foreign worlds and experiences, and there’s definitely a self-conscious sense of this here, with its exotic Algerian locales. And yet, if this is a film taking as its setting the colonialist fringes of French power, it’s also very much one in which these expansions are questioned. Ultimately it expresses the homesickness of the audience surrogate, Jean Gabin’s title character; it seems to express something of the melancholy of imperialism.

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