In the introductory chapter of his Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Andrew Dudley characterizes the films of poetic realism as generally “shortsighted and morally anemic,” evading “pressing political problems,” wallowing “in regret” and generally choosing not to confront “the economic depression and the fascist threat.” (Dudley, 16) It is true that in Marcel Carné’s films of 1938, Hôtel du Nord and Quai des brumes, we see little direct evidence of either economic depression, fascism or the collapse of the Front Populaire. However, it would be difficult to argue that either of these films, especially Quai des brumes, somehow avoid addressing the pressing political and social issues of their time; on the contrary, Quai des brumes elicited a ferocious critical response because of its supposed ‘political content’, especially after the beginning of the Second World War.
As Susan Weiner notes in an article on the adaptation of Pierre Mac Orlan’s novel into Carné’s film, “Quai des brumes was vilified by the French Ministry of War, Vichy’s Commission de Contrôle Cinématographique and the Centrale Catholique de Cinéma alike, and raised suspicions of both fascist sympathies and anti-militarism. […] In the early years of the Occupation, Vichy propaganda blamed France’s defeat on ‘paid holidays, André Gide, and Quai des brumes.’” (Weiner, 129) More explicitly, a Vichy spokesperson was quoted as saying : “If we have lost the war, it is because of Quai des brumes.” (cited in Weiner 130) The charges of anti-militarism can be easily explained, given Jean’s status as an AWOL soldier, but that leaves us with at least two remaining questions: why the extremity of the response against this film in the aftermath of the war and “Why, if it was to be banned by French military, German, and Vichy censors, would the left-leaning Renoir decry it as fascist when it first appeared?” (Bates, 25) I don’t have the time or space here to review Renoir’s famous accusation of fascism against this film, or his subsequent attempts to clarify and back-pedal his statements or the role his relationship with Jacques Prévert may have played in this. However, it should be clear from the critical firestorm that engulfed this film in the years following its release that even if political or economic issues aren’t presented in the forefront, its content obviously appeared as having incredibly strong and unavoidable political valences to the viewers (or at least the critics) of its own time. During my own viewings of the film, I’ve found numerous potential reasons for these vociferous reactions.
As others have noted in criticism of this film, masculinity, specifically7 “a crisis of masculinity” occupies a large thematic role in the contemporary reactions to Quai des brumes. (Bates, 26) Lucien, the thug with a hard exterior but ultimately lacking a spine, figures masculine humiliation and emasculation. Zabel figures lasciviousness but also ultimate impotency. Jean appears to most closely conform to the stereotypes of masculinity at the time, but ultimately his pride and inability to control his anger leads to his self-destruction. The supposedly more neutral characters in the film would appear equally problematic to a viewer imbued with a bourgeois morality or nationalistic perspective: Vittal, perpetually drunk and unable to take anything seriously; Panama, hosting guests of questionable repute in his hermetically sealed drinking hole outside of town; Michel, the painter devoured by his own self-doubt and a melancholy bordering on nihilism. Even the doctor Jean meets on the docks and who facilitates his potential trip to Venezuela turns out to be a figure of ridicule: he is easily taken in and made a fool of by Jean’s awkward lies and claims about his new identity as an artist. Traditional notions of femininity are also fairly absent, as Nelly presents an equally problematic figure: not the innocent virgin, but yet also not the manipulative woman of the world (or prostitute, though this was her role in the original novel), enigmatic yet also falling outside the typical standards of feminine beauty at the time, she inadvertently leads all the men around her to death and destruction.
Beyond these a-typical gender roles, which could easily be utilized by conservative discourses to attack the “decadence” or “depravity” of poetic realism and Quai des brumes in particular, the particular form of fatalism the film presents could be targeted by an equal amount of political criticism. Midway through the film, Panama drops Jean’s soldier’s uniform into the water with the aid of a stone to weigh it down, immediately after Jean tells him to keep the uniform for a year, in case he comes back for it. Panama knows that Jean will not return, though whether he foresees his violent end is up for debate. The fatalism of the film is clear by its end, and especially remarkable after repeated viewings: every action in the film inevitably lead to Jean’s death, though Jean has a key moment in which self-restraint would have saved him from his fate: his second face-to-face encounter with Lucien at the fair. It is at this moment of the film, in Jean’s inability to stop himself from chastising and humiliating Lucien a second time, that I believe we see the most overt critique of the model of masculinity, overly bellicose and arrogantly intent on proving itself, that Jean embodies; he is perhaps at the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Lucien, but equally destructive and problematic. Bates argues that it is the automatic identification with Jean that the film provokes that incited Renoir’s accusation of fascism: “While watching Quai des brumes, Renoir was as drawn in as others were and found himself identifying with the explosive anger. Upon reflection, he blamed the film for evoking such sensations, feeling that a French door had been opened for the kind of fascist violence that was occurring in Germany and Italy.” (Bates, 36)
To return to the question of fatalism, not only is Jean’s death deterministically given by the film’s plot, but he, like Edmond in Hôtel du Nord who returns to the hotel despite his certain knowledge that this return would lead to his death, probably foresees the consequences of returning to Nelly one last time. This acquiescing surrender to death and defeat would very understandably be distasteful both to the Vichy administration ,at least for purposes of propaganda attributing the blame for France’s defeat, and left-wing critics. Thus, while this film does not highlight or analyze explicitly political concerns on its surface, its thematic undercurrents capture perfectly some anxieties and areas of contestation of the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the war, something evidenced by the ferocious rhetoric surrounding the film which erupted, not upon its release, but once war had engulfed France. I can’t think of a more apt way of summarizing this than pointing out, as Bates does, that in the face of critiques and bans of his film from government authorities, Carné claimed “they were blaming the ‘barometer.’” (Bates, 40)
Bates, Robin. “Audiences on the Verge of a Fascist Breakdown: Male Anxieties and Late 1930s French Film.” Cinema Journal 36:3 (1997): 25-55.
Weiner, Susan. “When a prostitute becomes an orphan: Pierre Mac Orlan’s Le Quai des brumes (1927) in the service of poetic realism.” Studies in French Cinema 6:2 (2006): 129-140.