5/10 | 03.Dec.12
Les portes de la nuit
DIRECTOR: Marcel Carné | WRITER: Jacques Prévert | CAST: Yves Montand, Serge Reggiani, Jean Vilar, Nathalie Nattier, Pierre Brasseur, Raymond Bussières, Saturnin Fabre | France
I have a very low tolerance for whimsy and none at all for arch, pretentious, self-consciously “poetic” allegories, so it’s no wonder that I didn’t love Les portes de la nuit, Marcel Carné’s last film collaboration with Jacques Prévert. The film is set in Paris in February 1945, a few months after the Liberation but while the war is still raging elsewhere and profiteers, collaborators, and informers are still at large and have yet to be brought to account. Destiny, in the guise of a homeless man (Jean Vilar), wanders around warning people of what he sees in their immediate future, but instead of guiding their actions he steps back to observe. The implication that each individual is fully responsible for his or her own actions — and the movie is concerned specifically with actions taken during the Nazi occupation — may account for why Les portes de la nuit was such a disaster at the box office; that can’t have been a welcome message to French audiences in 1946. Also contributing to its box office failure must have been the fact that Les portes de la nuit was by far the most expensive French film made to date, with most of the budget going to enormous and elaborate sets.
The movie is mainly concerned with two men — Jean Diego (Yves Montand in his second film role), a merchant marine and member of the Resistance who is told he’ll meet the love of his life, a woman he’s already encountered but never met; and Guy Sénéchal (Serge Reggiani and his baroque eyebrows) a collaborator and (spoiler alert!) informer, who’s told he’ll meet a grisly end — and we follow the two as their paths cross and intertwine. And here’s where the whimsy quotient goes into overdrive. Guy’s sister Malou (Nathalie Nattier) loves to carve her name into statues and once, years before, carved her name into the base of a moai on Easter Island. Subsequent to her visit to the island, merchant marine Jean Diego happened by, saw her name carved in the base of the moai, and was so inspired by it that he named his boat “Malou”. Some time after that fateful encounter, Jean was in a waterfront bar in San Francisco (he may have sailed “Malou” there for all I know) and was transported by the song “Les feuilles mortes” that was playing on the radio — so transported, in fact, that the other bar patrons beat him into unconsciousness. Of course that singer was Malou, singing her heart out in a live radio broadcast from New York, and she was so transported while singing it that…something. Anyway, they meet cute that evening in Paris and are drawn to each other by, yes, “Les feuilles mortes”, which just happens to be Destiny’s theme song; it crops up over and over and over on the soundtrack: Yves Montand sings a snippet of the song to himself, Nathalie Nattier sings a chorus, Jean Vilar “plays” it on the harmonica, the tune wells up in the soundtrack repeatedly.
The acting on the whole is broad and amateurish, with Yves Montand coming across smart-alecky and full of himself and Nathalie Nattier wooden and vaguely unappealing. (Their parts were intended for Jean Gabin and Marlene Dietrich, but Gabin dropped out of the project shortly after Dietrich did. Piaf apparently lobbied Carné to cast her then-boyfriend Montand in the Gabin role. God only knows where they found Nattier.) Serge Reggiani, however, does quite well in his role as a petty gangster who’s obviously desperate to get away from the vengeance that he’s sure is about to be exacted on him. What is impressive about Les portes de la nuit is the spectacular production design of Alexandre Trauner (his production design for Carné’s Hôtel du Nord was also terrific) and the excellent cinematography of Philippe Agostini. And of course “Les feuilles mortes”, which made its film debut here but which I think Joseph Kosma wrote originally for the ballet Le rendez-vous whose scenario Prévert also wrote and which was the basis for this movie. As a side note, the Pathé restoration print is excellent.