Pictured above is one of the most beautiful moments in Joe Wright’s Atonement, and quite possibly, one of the most beautiful cinematic images of all time. Robbie sobs, mourning his separation from Cecilia, in front of a giant movie screen showing a couple’s embrace. The film that is playing is Jean Renoir’s Port of Shadows. Looking closely at both films, it is no coincidence or mere homage for Joe Wright to include such imagery. (Spoilers below for both films)
Port of Shadows is the primary example of the “French Poetic Realism” movement. This film movement encompasses moody, soft-focus cinematography on atmospheric locales that imbue each scene with a dismal gloom. The narrative often culminates in a sad ending. The French used this movement to wrestle with post-World War I traumas. Atonement invokes French Poetic Realism in many ways, particularly in its construction of the World War II sequences, such as the Dunkirk scenes or Briony’s nurse experiences. This gritty and bleak outlook of wartime harshly juxtaposes the elegance of Cecilia and Robbie’s 1930s prewar life in the opulent Tallis mansion.
Port of Shadows anticipates the incoming post-WWI Nazi rule and considers the nation’s failure to armor itself against these threats. Collective and national forces against the rising powers are viewed as fruitless. France longs to avoid the fearsome future of oppressive rule, just as Jean plans to escape via the ship. Atonement, however, plays out the ramifications of Nazi leadership in its World War II story. The war ultimately destroys everything, from the children Robbie observes lying dead in a field to his own romantic future with Cecilia. Just as Port of Shadows concludes, there is no escape or solace from the Nazi regime or the traumas of war.
Most significantly, Port of Shadows and Atonement depict doomed lovers who long for impossible happiness. Atonement teases us with the romantic possibility until the sledgehammer ending reveals that Robbie and Cecilia did not find everlasting happiness in a tiny seaside cottage but rather died during the war before they could meet again. In Port of Shadows, Jean and Nelly are about to escape the town when he is shot by a local gangster and then dies in Nelly’s arms. Both couples are only afforded small moments, Nelly and Jean’s kiss or Robbie and Cecilia’s meeting in the tea house, where they idealistically believe they will end up together. Port of Shadows and Atonement conclude that happiness is fleeting and corruption wins out in the end. Briony’s lies, WWII’s conflicts and the gangsters in Nelly’s town are too powerful and strong to withstand or defeat.
The scene of Jean and Nelly’s kiss occurs at a carnival, a locale that Atonement signals during the Elegy for Dunkirk sequence. The soldiers stumble upon a broken-down and abandoned fairground, complete with a Ferris wheel and carousel. While the lovers of Port of Shadows find romantic solace within the carnival, believing that they can escape the city, the film concludes that there is shelter from a dismal fate. Atonement’s fairground rides similarly serve as icons reflecting the nation’s former happiness and joy. The playfulness and joy the merry-go-ground brought is destroyed by the war, just as the lovers idealistic dreams in Port of Shadows are hopelessly futile. Much like the fairground sequence in Port of Shadows, Atonement attempts to pacify its audience into believing that Robbie and Cecilia live out their days together. But the Nazi regime that French Poetic Realism feared extinguishes countless lives during the Second World War. The ideals of fate, war and romance run through the narratives of both films. The beautiful inclusion of Port of Shadows sadly foreshadows Robbie and Cecilia’s fates and provides a thought-provoking comparison of the two films.
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.