By Dudley Andrew. Princeton University Press. Paper, $24.95. Reviewed by Robin Bates
The poetic realist films of the late 1930s are indelibly marked on the French mind. The famous shot from Marcel Carne's Quai des Brumes (1938)--of Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan staring hopelessly out of a rain-stained window in a run-down tavern--seemed to capture the fatalism of the age. As the hopes associated with the Popular Front crashed and burned and as fascism relentlessly asserted itself, France turned to the movies, looking for a bittersweet solace. For three glorious years, from 1936 to 1939, a French film industry that had been floundering suddenly developed an aesthetic that whispered to viewers about their private anxieties and regrets, captivating general audiences and discriminating critics alike.
Mists of Regret, one of the most sensitive and intricate studies of French poetic realism to date, examines the sources of the aesthetic as it attempts to account for poetic realism's power over audiences. In the 1930s the camera "descended into the streets" (Carne's phrase) to follow the lives of marginal men who wandered in the shadows, propelled by obscure longings before being dropped (as often as not) by a destiny-driven bullet. In the gritty back streets of Marseilles, Le Havre, and Paris, viewers experienced a shock of recognition. And yet, even while poetic realism appeared to be a cinema of commonplace exterior objects, it cloaked everything in a poetic "atmosphere" that promised intimacy and authentic relation. As Andrew describes it, poetic realism invited its audiences deep into the screen, offering them an experience of "unprecedented density." In the detailed texture of the films, they could "physically experience on the screen what they privately worr[ied] over in everyday life."
Mists of Regret is a combination of cultural history and close filmic analysis, with periodic excursions into critical theory. There are chapters on France's literary and cinematic heritage, on the realist and the poetic traditions, and on the culture of the 1930s, especially music halls, theater, and popular fiction. There is a chapter on sound's aesthetic and economic impact and one on the relationship of film and the Popular Front. The different chapters are cross-referenced as Andrew creates what anthropologists call a thick description, showing how the different areas--the cultural, the technological, the political, the social, the economic, and the...