In 1896, writer Maxim Gorky described what was perhaps his first encounter with cinema, a Lumière brothers program at a fair, as entering “the kingdom of shadows.” This was a world so depressing it turned the viewer into a “ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones,” bringing out the “grey, the bleak and dismal life.” If, by 1938, the year Michel Carné directed Port of Shadows, cinema was hardly a disturbing novelty, it could certainly symptomatize the foreboding disturbances of the day, i.e. World War II and its preliminary anxieties. In Carné‘s tale of helplessness and despair, solitude is the only existential guarantee, and even the most romantic young girl, wearing a raincoat and bonnet, knows love to be a short-lived ruse—not unlike the scams of chauvinistic hoodlums.
Port of Shadows is steeped in the perennial fog that seemed to despair Gorky in the early days of cinema. The characters are frozen into a state of embittered melancholy, like Romeos too battered by life’s disappointments not to become Bluebeards. Jean (Jean Gabin) is an AWOL soldier seeking refuge in the city of Le Havre, where he meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), an unspeakably stunning 17-year-old girl surrounded by men involved in shady businesses—from false passports to murder and dismemberment. In their first encounter, Jean and Nelly exchange diverging opinions about the incapacity of a woman to love a soldier without his uniform, and only after do they ask each other’s names. She mourns the fact that humans wake up every morning as if something good was going to happen and it never does; he’s just as optimistic, so they fall madly in love.
But these are unusual lovers on film. They’re too wounded to actually love—to completely believe love’s seductive premise and perverse promises; they can taste the nasty aftertaste of disenchantment before love has even fully announced itself. So when Jean delivers bad news to Nelly after making love to her for the first time (that he has to leave on a Venezuela-bound ship in the morning), it hardly comes as a surprise. The end of love, coinciding with its beginning, is almost like a favor life offers them. This awareness of the violence inherent to emotional bonds feels like a mature way to avoid the more familiar desperation that tends to befall cinematic characters, and real-life folk. But it can also act as a buzz-kill for an audience that’s thus unallowed intimacy with the character’s wants, only with their defense mechanisms. We empathize with their resistance to suffer, but it’s hard to feel something other than philosophical respect for characters who think of swimmers as soon-to-be drowned men. We want to get lost in Morgan’s impossible beauty (she’s a humorless Katherine Hepburn of sorts), to root for Gabin’s humble heroism, and to see them flee together in the nick of time. But their rational approach to love makes us dread our own cinematic investment.