Where Does Poetic Realism Fit in to Film Noir?

If we are going to get anywhere with this film noir thing, we have to understand Poetic Realism.  For once, let's not got to WIKIPEDIA.  Instead, I'll try and call this one in pictures of Jean Gabin.

The story goes that when film noir surfaced in America in the early 1940s, it was the product of a mixing of current American themes with two stylistic strands from Europe, the first being German Expressionism and the second being Poetic Realism.


It's hard to define this topic of Poetic Realism however, without mentioning another whole heap of -isms, but that is what European art was always about.

It's the difference between movement and genre.  Genres have names like — thriller — comedy — action and adventure — romance — and so forth, and that's because genres are used to create and market certain expectations.

Isms however, such as Poetic Realism, are not so easy to market.  And film noir, if it is anything, is an ism, not a genre.

Jean Gabin in Le Belle Equippe (1936)
Jean Gabin in Le Belle Equippe (1936)
Jean Gabin in Pepe le Mok (1937)
Jean Gabin in Pepe le Moko (1937)

Jean Gabin in La Grande Illusion (1937)
Jean Gabin in La Grande Illusion (1937)

Jean Gabin in Le Quai Des Brumes (1938)
Jean Gabin in Le Quai Des Brumes (1938)

Getting into these isms then, we can see Poetic Realism  as something of a reaction to the Expressionism and Impressionism present in the European cinema of the day. 

Whereas Expressionism sought to exaggerate certain features of setting and action in order to emphasise key themes, Poetic Realism sought to base its action in the real and poor lives of normal citizens.  Even though these films were shot largely on sound stages and against studio sets, the idea was to create a form of realiss, that while not being documentary, was still consistent with life as we might perceive it.

And whereas French Impressionist Cinema sought to use strange optical effects and devices, unusual camera angles and flashback and fantasy in order to express themes and psychological aspects, Poetic Realism sought to create a form of realism of action and setting, although the stories were usually about love, disillusionment, and often ended in death.

The directors most associated with this style of film-making were Pierre Chenal, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné, and probably most significantly of all, Jean Renoir

Frequent stars of these films were Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Simone Signoret, and Michèle Morgan.  Of these, Michèle Morgan even made it to the American screen, and you can see her in the paranoid and rather weird film noir The Chase (1946), which co-starred hapless heel Robert Cumnmings and the popularly villainous Peter Lorre.

A good place to see some poetic realism in action might be Le Quai Des Brumes (1938).  In this down at heel drama, you see love blossom in some truly seedy settings, as Jean Gabin and the above mentioned Michèle Morgan battle fate and crime to try and retain some dignity in the grinding poverty of depression era Europe.


Having read that you might already have worked out how this effected film noir.  But when these trends began to be felt in America, what we see in films like Detour (1945) and other early film noirs, are these realistic and poor settings, in which characters' lives are played out to their doomful conclusions, much as they were in the poetic realist films of France.

A further aspect is that poetic realist films often dealt with lower class or criminal characters, and that is soemthing else we feel pretty strongly in film noir.

So while the influence of poetic realism in film noir is not definite, it is still there, nonetheless.  It's perhaps a marginal feeling and an effort in some pretty tough times, to make pretty tough films which somehow reflect social conditions and play out the hopelessness many must have felt tempted to succumb to in the depression era.

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