Thursday, April 23, 2009
Here in Brooklyn we're gladly gliding along the distant edge of summertime and hoping that all the must-see flicks screening in the next few months fall on rainy days. Not so with Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes), which showed some nights ago as the second installment of BAM's Prix Louis Delluc series. Spring fever falling all over the place as it is, Marcel Carné's baleful sea, consuming fog, and augural sensibility had its work cut out. As dark and misty as 1938 France looked and as lost as Carné's fated were, Port of Shadows proved winning even in the midst of Spring's sun-soaked beginning.
It's about a soldier who deserts the front, ends up in a shady port-town, meets a cast of lost-souls--lost to alcoholism, insecurity, sin, youth and troubled youth, or just a mind's relentless self-rumination. He falls in love with one them, a seventeen year old lady who sports a transparent raincoat and, uniquely, pushes against her ugly circumstances to reach out for life. And then, as all of the film's wandering souls do (or will do, we are confident, even if it's many off-screen years in the future) our main man eventually meets a fate that seems writ on the impenetrable, engulfing fog. I'm not just talking about death and, in fact, am talking about a certain kind of life. Though I don't know so much about philosophical ideas of nihilism...or about very many hopeless things at all, it seems that the truly terrifying feature of a nihilistic perspective is not a sense of imminent death but a lack of agency and a sort of colossal claustrophobia in life. And I suppose this fate-writ-on-the-fog business in Port of Shadows is why, like a firm punch to the stomach, it leaves a lady, not sad, not disappointed, but out of breath. This also probably explains why the Vichy government implicated this movie in France's defeat by the Germans, for it seems, above all, war necessitates a nation's steady, deep breathing. (Carné's charming response to this accusation: "Does one blame the weather on the barometer?")
Carné puts forth a human landscape of lost and fated beings in lots of smart ways, so many I wish I had a copy of the movie (or at least some notes) so that I could tell you about all of them. To follow my intuitions from the paragraph above, very few characters make decisions in this movie (meaning, in their lives) and any life-altering decisions that do exist happen off-screen, affecting the plot only in their seemingly random implications for other characters. Consequences are broken from their Actions; Causes are uprooted from their Effects; Intentions are obsolete; the world and its blind populace is sloppy.
The tidiest example of this universe's randomness comes about a third of the way into the movie when an artist, one of the lost-souls at this strange port, commits suicide. Of course we don't see it first-hand, the event being one of the film's few big decisions; we only experience the event as a peripheral thing which frees up clothing for our protagonist. And that leads me to my second point of fascination about how this movie communicates a world so lacking in human agency: once our rough and tough, quick talkin' main man puts on the artist's clothes, people start treating him as the latter. As the soldier--donning the new civies and holding his new passport (also the dead artist's)--sets out, a friend reminds him not to forget "his" paint box and the soldier quickly scoops it up as if it had just slipped his mind, as if it were instantly and sincerely his hobby. Continuing in this vein, the soldier introduces himself as an artist, gets asked art-related questions, and even steals words from the dead artist's mouth...which, quite beautifully (and famously?) are something like: "I paint the things behind the things. When I see a swimmer, I immediately think he'll drown, so I paint a drowned man." The soldier's strange and unnecessary adoption of the dead painter's persona pushes along a broader thesis about human beings as basically what the world makes of them. There's nothing to us but projections thrown upon us from the outside; we're just messy assemblages of the world's vague impressions and this, lacking in purity and meaning, is a poor substitute for an identity... something along those lines. And so, the soldier adopts a dog just because it won't go away and everybody keeps asking if it's his. Mistakes, projections, illusions, delusions--this is how most "things" happen in this movie.
So how did this dark punch of cinema find such a comfortable home in this, the vibrant season of birth and re-birth? It was a strange thing: the film's plot, mis-en-scene, characters: they all point to the themes discussed--a world of fatalism and inevitability--but, the remarkable thing is, they do so downright gleefully! Mist meets celluloid with a warm embrace, casting a fuzzy spell over every corner of the theater. The French phenom, Jean Gabin, plays the soldier with a special kind of masculine gusto, one that melts around the edges into something soft and self-deprecating. With a loving hand from behind the camera, Carné holds his characters and their troubles dear, even as the wrought world around them closes in. And, perhaps most magically, this movie is really funny; a teenage girl howls with laughter as her boyfriend gets slapped across the face, and gangsters look like babies right before they cry, and seemingly sophisticated romantics make amateur mistakes. There are bumper cars! In short, there's passion pulsing through this film, entering from every imaginable angle and illuminating from the inside out. French critic Michel Ciment introduced the film by revealing the cast and crew to be, at every turn, the supreme talents of the day. From directing (that old so-and-so, Marcel) to music (Maurice Jaubert) and costumes (the see-through raincoat is Coco Chanel's [!], apparently) to the script (poet, Jacques Prévert) to the acting (in addition to Gabin, a sweet and sticking performance by Michéle Morgan in the female lead)--genius reined over Port of Shadows. And how queer, really: a group of the most talented artists joining together with commitment and sincerity to create a beautiful, effective film about the limits of human beings and the indomitable, if invisible, forces that govern them. Such creativity pouring into something that asserts the impossibility of true human creativity! Such mindfulness and intentionality at work in the articulation of a world where people's thoughts are rendered meaningless because nobody can make a real choice! It's a wonderfully odd relationship between the artistic world outside of the piece and its innards, one in which values and philosophies reflect and refract, bouncing between the two spheres to prove a higher point, a point I think quite appropriate to the precipice of Spring: even in the most dire of straights, when hope has deserted us and meaning evades the most desperate of grasps, if we can find a way to articulate that state of desolation, if we can just use our tools (even, maybe, muster a sense of humor), then we become something after all, meaning returns, and the world fills our outstretched hands like never before.