The world is all out of whack: multiple Dutch tilts are on display in Voyage sans espoir (1943), an unbelievably glossy poetic realist proto-noir from Christian-Jaque: the film actually begins with railway tracks viewed from the front of a speeding train, upside down, as the camera drunkenly rolls upright and titles come flying towards us, slapping flat across the frame like flies hitting a windshield.
The plot is convoluted but crisp—chance encounters tie together Jean Marais, fleeing his job at a bank to see life and settle in Argentina, with an escaped jailbird of psychopathic demeanor (Paul Bernard) and his girlfriend, the radiant Simone Renant. There's also a likably crooked ship's captain carrying a torch for Renant, a sinister ethnic-type sailor (Ky Duyen), and a pair of hard-drinking but eternally sober detectives who resemble nothing more than the Thompson Twins from Tintin. The French had a nifty way with doom-laden storylines—I've long thought that the basic premise of Port of Shadows (man has to leave the country—the means to do so fall into his lap—but at the same time he falls in love with a girl who can't go with him) is so strong it could be recycled with variations a hundred times. But as I was watching this one, it started to feel familiar.
Then it hit me: it's a remake of Les amours de minuit (1931), which I saw in Lyon without subtitles and while half asleep—it lodged somewhere in one of the mustier corners of my brain. That one stars Pierre Batcheff, lanky leading man of Un chien Andalou, who is no Jean Marais, but it has a lot of pizzazz. The director was Auguste Gennina and it resembles the style of his best-known flick, Prix de beauté (1930). While that one was an early soundie, basically a sonorized silent, Les amours showed the director's considerable imagination wrestled with the practical constraints of early sound technology, lumbering cameras and crude mixing.
Christian-Jaque's version is slicker by miles, all set in elaborately artificial studio sets, with louring cycloramas and big-ass model buildings in the distance (even a tiny lighthouse, with light) which sometimes give up even trying to look real, buildings dissolving into charcoal smears that jut from the earth and expressionist angles. There's a hair too much running about in the last third, a nasty touch of racism, and the most interesting character is bumped off too soon, but the movie is oozing with doomed love, dry wit, doleful philosophy (from everybody), fog, lambent auras that spark highlights off lips and eyes, and a kind of morbid glamour, and it has a couple of great twists. One involves the most innocent-seeming character, and the other is the ending, one of those tragic jobs played in railway stations, where the clouds of steam and hissing machinery become somehow the perfect evocation of romantic angst.
The chiselled Marais may never have looked better, though his character, a foolish young naif, isn't as interesting as the actor playing him. Simone Renant likewise benefits from the luminous chiaroscuro of Robert Lefebvre, who had a long career stretching from Belphegor (1927), a Fantomas-like serial about a masked criminal haunting the Louvre, to The Image, Radley Metzger's S&M porno adapted from the work of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. What all his work (with René Clair, Jacques Becker, Brigitte Bardot) has in common is a devotion to lustrousness and high style. Why should anything look less than breathtakingly beautiful?
Marais commented afterwards that he never came under suspicion for collaborating with the occupying Nazi powers because he never worked for Continental, the German company that dominated much production in Paris. But he added that this was pure coincidence: he had been lined up to do several films for them, but each fell through in turn. As a jobbing actor seeking to avoid the wrath of the authorities, you didn't have any choice in the matter. And so the difference between collaborationists and patriots, based on film credits, was a matter of schedules and budgets and job offers rather than political will.
Oh! It seems screenwriter Pierre Mac Orlan, helping adapt the Gennino for C-J, was also a writer on Port of Shadows, which totally makes sense. Everything that is said about film noir in terms of doom-laden fatalism is ten times as true of French poetic realism.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.