S y n o p s i s:
February 1945. In the Paris metro, manual worker Jean Diego is accosted by a tramp, who introduces himself as Fate and lets slip the tragic future that awaits him. According to Fate, Diego is destined to meet a beautiful young woman he once encountered in the past. Sure enough, within a few hours, Diego runs into Malou, the woman he has long dreamed of. Malou is grateful for Diego’s company, particularly as she has just walked out on her husband Georges, a man for whom she is ill-suited. Ignoring a warning from the tramp that he is heading for an unpleasant death, Malou’s cruel brother Guy sets out to stir up trouble for his own amusement. Having told Georges that his wife has fallen for another man, Guy hands him his gun. The trap is sprung and the outcome is just as the tramp predicted…
R e v i e w:
Once the euphoria of the Liberation had passed in the autumn of 1944, France succumbed to a long and bitter winter as the closing acts of World War II were played out beyond its borders. This period of extreme austerity and unremitting gloom is perfectly evoked by Marcel Carné’s final poetic realist masterpiece, Les Portes de la nuit. The war is far from over and the scars of Occupation are a long way from healing. Collaborators and informers have yet to be brought to account and France lives under a pall of shame – De Gaulle’s resistance myth has yet to become an unquestioned fact. Bad men continue to prosper whilst poor decent families suffer.
This is the closed, dismal world into which Carné and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert fling us for their last great collaboration, a world of open wounds poisoned by recrimination and guilt. Needless to say, the critics and audiences of the time found the film too depressing and it was a major critical and commercial disaster. The film’s failure would prove fatal for Carné’s future filmmaking prospects and his next (and last) venture with Prévert (La Fleur de l’âge) had to be abandoned when his financial backers lost faith and withdrew their support. It would take many decades before Les Portes de la nuit came to be as well regarded as Marcel Carné’s earlier films. Now that the Occupation and its traumatic aftermath can be seen through more objective eyes, the film’s strengths are more readily appreciated. With its sombre realism and distinctive poetry, to say nothing of its exceptional production qualities, this must surely rate as one of the director’s finest achievements, a darkly ironic study in the power that an individual has over his or her own destiny.
Les Portes de la nuit is an adaptation of a ballet entitled Le Rendez-vous which had been created by Marcel Carné’s long-term collaborators Jacques Prévert and Joseph Kosma. The film’s producers, Pathé, stipulated that Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin be given the starring roles, but both actors were uninterested in the venture and instead opted to work together on another film, Georges Lacombe’s Martin Roumagnac (1946). Marcel Carné then took the bold, some would say suicidal, step of casting two virtual unknowns in the lead roles – Yves Montand and Nathalie Nattier. Montand had by this stage begun to make a name for himself as a music hall singer and had just appeared in his first film, Étoile sans lumière (1946), alongside his off-screen partner Édith Piaf. Nattier also had only a few screen credits to her name but had distinguished herself in Georges Lampin’s L’Idiot (1946). What both actors lack in experience is more than made up for in charisma and vitality, and they bring to the film a very palpable sense of modernity.
The film’s biggest name actor was Pierre Brasseur, who had previously starred in Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) and Les Enfants du paradis (1945). Serge Reggiani, another rising star, was also cast in a leading part, one that presages his subsequent villainous roles, notably that of the the spiv Leon Lescaut in H.G. Clouzot’s Manon (1949). For the part of the sinister tramp who claims to be Fate, Carné cast the acclaimed stage actor Jean Vilar, who rarely appeared in films (this was only his second screen role). The year after the film was released, Villar went on to found one of France’s major cultural institutions, the Festival d’Avignon. The supporting cast includes some very distinguished names, including Julien Carette, Saturnin Fabre, Raymond Bussières, Sylvia Bataille, Jane Marken and Dany Robin – all excellent in their well-matched roles.
As on Les Enfants du paradis, Carné squandered a small fortune in making the film. Les Portes de la nuit was in production for eight months and cost 120 million francs, making it the most expensive French film ever made at the time. A large proportion of the budget went on some incredibly ambitious sets (designed by Carné’s frequent associate Alexandre Trauner), including a lavish studio recreation of the entrance to the Barbès-Rochechouart underground station. It was the film’s astronomical cost which, at a time of severe national austerity, earned it some very bad press even before it had been released. The critics were also far from enthusiastic about the dreary tone of the film and its unflattering portrayal of contemporary France. This was not what cinema audiences wanted to see, nor needed to see. The film was also pretty severely lambasted for its perceived plot contrivances which rendered the story unconvincing. The film’s poetic qualities and technical brilliance were overlooked by all but a small number of critics. After the film’s failure at the box office, most critics would adhere stubbornly to the view that Carné was a spent force, and this made it increasingly difficulty for the director to find backing for his films.
Today, the criticism that Les Portes de la nuit garnered on its first release seems to be not only unduly harsh but completely misplaced. Whilst it is hard to see quite where all the money went, it is among Carné’s most polished and engaging films – well-acted, well-directed, beautifully scripted by Jacques Prévert and atmospherically photographed by Philippe Agostini. Despite his lack of acting experience, Yves Montand carries the film admirably and gives it an immediacy and charm that even Gabin would have had difficulty matching. The two songs that feature prominently in the film – Les Enfants qui s’aiment and Les Feuilles mortes (written by Prévert with music by Joseph Kosma) – would become very well-known after the film was released (and buried), and would become part of Montand’s repertoire (although he did not get to sing them in the film). And it has to be said that virtually no other film made in France at this time evokes the grim period between the Liberation and the end of WWII half as well as this one – its artistic value is matched by its worth as a historic document.
On its initial release, one of the perceived weaknesses of Les Portes de la nuit was the representation of Fate as a tramp (Jean Vilar in his most memorable screen role). One could argue that the character is entirely superfluous, his presence serving merely to draw attention to the somewhat laboured plot contrivances. And yet to think this is to completely misunderstand the film. Far from being a deus ex machina, Fate (if that is indeed what the tramp is) is a pretty impotent beggar, reduced to being no more than a feeble bystander. He can predict the future, but he is powerless to alter the course of events. Instead, it is the character failings in the protagonists which propel them to their tragic outcome. All that Fate can do is sit back and watch, like a disgruntled sports commentator.
Again and again, the image of the train pounding relentlessly down a set of railway tracks – as in Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938) – serves as a potent visual metaphor for the unstoppable trajectory the characters are following. They are guided not by supernatural forces, but by their own failings – Diego’s impulsiveness, Guy’s venality and Georges’ jealousy. This can be seen as a departure from the fatalism of Carné’s previous poetic realist films, where external factors play a part in the tragic ending. Here, the characters appear to be entirely responsible for what happens to them. Could it be that Carné and Prévert are using the film to comment on how individuals conducted themselves during the period of Occupation, reminding audiences that those nasty collaborators and informers did what they did on their own account and should be judged accordingly?
The film’s relevance to the Occupation becomes more evident when we consider the characters involved in the drama. On the side of the angels are Diego (Montand) and Raymond (Raymond Bussières), two honest working class men who actively participated in the Resistance during the Occupation. They represent decency and honour in the face of adversity, the authentic face of French patriotism. Set against these models of virtue are three loathsome grotesques. Of these, the most venal is Monsieur Senechal (magnificently played by Saturnin Fabre), the epitome of the petit bourgeois businessman whose ardent support for Maréchal Pétain had more to do with moneymaking expediency than political conviction. Senechal is the film’s least likeable character – he has prospered financially from the Occupation and has absolutely no qualms about doing so. His son Guy would appear to be just as bad, if not worse. He has an aura of Fascistic superiority about him and seems to revel in causing misery to others. Yet, unlike his father, Guy is aware that his conduct is immoral; he has a conscience, and this conscience is ultimately what destroys him.And what are we to make of Georges (Brasseur), a soulless capitalist who exists only to make money to live in comfort? He has no moral fibre, he is just a weak and cowardly man, but he can do great harm when he comes under the influence of someone of evil intent. Diego and Raymond are beyond reproach. Senechal, Guy and Georges represent the ignoble minority who shamed France during the Occupation. This becomes clearer if we recognise that Malou, the ill-fated femme fatale of the piece, symbolises France, France soiled and humiliated by her recent past. Even though Georges is Malou’s husband, it is Diego who is mistaken for the one who truly loves her. Yet Diego’s goodness is not enough to prevent the two Senechals and Georges from destroying Malou and we share his despair as he descends once more into the metro, his dreams shattered. For a hopeful outcome we must look elsewhere – to a pair of young lovers (played by Dany Robin and Jean Maxime) who are untainted by the Occupation. It is they who represent the future; it is they who will lead France out of its period of shame and sorrow, into a bright new tomorrow.
© James Travers 2011