The actress Michèle Morgan, a star of French cinema, died on December 20th 2016, at the age of 96.
According to France Culture Michèle Morgan « a révolutionné l’image de la femme moderne » (“revolutionized the image of the modern woman”) and was herself a symbol of French cinema. The original femme fatale.
Her most famous role was that of Nelly in Le Quai des Brumes (or Port of Shadows for American audiences). Quai des Brumes came out in 1938 and is categorized under the French film movement called réalisme poétique (poetic realism), which was the originating influence that birthed American film noir. In fact this film was the first to ever be called « un film noir » by the French press.
The most famous scene in Quai des Brumes, and one of the most famous scenes in all of French cinema, is the one with the line « T’as d’beaux yeux tu sais ». In the scene, the protagonist (played by Jean Gabin, a titan of French cinema) has fallen in love with Nelly (played by Michèle Morgan); they are at a carnival and they stop mid stroll to have a romantic moment where he tells her, “You have beautiful eyes, you know”, and she replies “Kiss me” (« Embrassez-moi »):
Le Monde’s obituary reminds us that in that titular scene of Quai des Brumes, Morgan responds to Gabin’s desire with that of her own, demanding “Kiss me”. Demonstrating that « Elle n’était pas seulement un objet de désir, mais une actrice à la sexualité affirmée, formulant ses désirs. Une femme qui menait les débats, c’est-à-dire une star » (“She wasn’t only an object of desire, but an actress that affirmed her own sexuality, formulated her own desires. A woman that dominated conversations, that is to say a star”).
France Culture explains that « Elle est surnommée «les yeux du cinéma français», tellement son regard transperce la pellicule et envoûte le spectateur » (“She was nicknamed ‘the eyes of french cinema’, by reason of her gaze which pierced through the film and captivated the audience”). Le Monde specifies that « Michèle Morgan a dû composer avec son regard toute sa carrière » (“Michèle Morgan must have crafted, with that gaze, her entire career”). But behind those eyes there was a sense melancholiness that pervaded her, she herself having remarked: « la tristesse est mon élément » (“sadness is my element”).
And there is definitely something about her eyes in Quai des Brumes. Her incredible see-through trench coat that she wears in the first scene in which we meet her (by Coco Chanel, how daring for 1938!). Her indomitable spirit in the face of the incredible darkness that permeates the film. Her belief in love. Michèle Morgan’s performance is what makes Quai des Brumes a classic of French cinema. And so much of that performance is contained in her gaze, which does indeed leap off the screen, pinning you to your seat, almost as if she can see right through you.
Michèle Morgan was a force to be reckoned with. We are the poorer for her loss, but we can thank our lucky stars that she honored us with her talent, and left behind such beautiful performances. Merci Michèle Morgan, merci infiniment.