Tuesday Editor’s Pick: L’Atalante (1934)

by on December 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Jan 3 at 8:00 at reRun Gastropub [Program & Tix]

reRun celebrates 2012 with free screenings of the “Top 10 Criterion Blu-Rays,” thru Jan 5. Doors, bar, and snacks an hour before showtime. The series curators note that Jean Vigo’s sole feature film is their personal favorite of the bunch.

Director and Vigo acolyte Guy Maddin:

It seems so out of control, every frame is beautifully framed but almost everything happening is so shambly and messy and floppy, and falling down, and Michel Simon and his very bad tattoos jiggling on his fat. Everything is shot from above, inside the Atalante, to give the impression there’s no way a camera could even get in there, we know this was a set, there was plenty of room, but Vigo just makes everything so claustrophobic and dirty. It’s one of the smelliest movie, you can almost smell the salt and the oil and the armpits and the cat pee, but it seems to move with a bounce, it reminds me of a cartoon, like a Fleischer, a Popeye or Betty Boop, it has a rhythmic filthy bounce to it, and it is a very simple story. This was very inspiring to me, I love what Vigo does with the frame, closing the frame in, at the top, the bottom, the side, the foreground. You could probably rearrange all the scenes in l’Atalante and the film would still feel just as great, keeping of course the beginning and the end, that’s kind of a miracle, I know when it was restored it someone found a bunch more of minutes, they added it to the movie, it’s wonderful to see them but it didn’t necessarily makes the movie better, and then they took some of them out again, and that didn’t hurt, I don’t know it just seems to be a miracle that keeps producing wonders whether it’s cut up or left all. It’s great.



Dennis Lim for LA Weekly:

A landmark of early sound cinema and one of the most beloved French films of all time… It’s a simple love story in many ways — and yet as strange and haunting as a dream while remaining uncommonly clear-eyed about the complications of coupledom. A work of surpassing tenderness and luminosity, it’s alive in ways that few films are, thanks partly to the expressive physicality of the performances (by Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo as the newlyweds, and Michel Simon as a tattooed old salt) and the vivid impressions of working-class riverside life and of Paris in the 1920s.

Vigo’s cinema never lost its documentary moorings, its hunger for the real and love of the world. Vigo may have attained godhead status, but his films are hardly perfect objects. Made under difficult conditions by a prodigious talent who was still finding his way in an evolving medium, they exhibit not consummate mastery but an off-kilter poetry and a restless, even prankish energy. They are, in the best sense possible, a young man’s films.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

One of the glories of the old French cinema. Vigo’s lone commercial movie, L’Atalante benefits from an extraordinary alchemy. The filmmaker, a temperamental anarchist, surrealist fellow traveler, and one-man nouvelle vague, loathed the mediocre script he’d been given—a moralizing tale in which a village girl marries a self-satisfied barge captain and is taught by him and his pompous old mate to appreciate the monotony of her new life and scorn the decadent pleasures of the shore. Vigo followed the original screenplay while undermining its smug implications. As filmed, the narrative dissolved into limpid anecdotes. Quasi-documentary bits of business were scattered throughout, and, thanks to the performances, the characters appear far more complicated than written, particularly the unpredictably irrational mate sensationally embodied by Michel Simon.

Vigo’s untimely death (at 29, a few days after a mutilated cut of L’Atalante completed its initial mayfly run) ensured that his particular vision would never grow old. L’Atalante is the world in springtime—a place where shimmering reflections, smoky breezes, empty streets, and a free-floating sense of erotic energy are the essence of life and of movies.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

One of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema. The sensuality of the characters and the settings, indelibly caught in Boris Kaufman’s glistening cinematography, are only part of the film’s remarkable poetry, the conviction of which goes beyond such categories as realism or surrealism, just as the powerful sexuality in the film ultimately transcends such categories as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and even bisexuality. Shot by shot and moment by moment, the film is so fully alive to the world’s possibilities that magic and reality seem to function as opposite sides of the same coin, with neither fully adequate to Vigo’s vision. The characters are at once extremely simple and extremely complex (richest of all is Simon’s Pere Jules, as beautiful a piece of character acting as one can find anywhere), and while the continuity is choppy in spots—a factor skillfully cloaked by Maurice Jaubert’s superb score—the film’s aliveness and potency are so constant that this hardly seems to matter. A major inspiration to subsequent generations of filmmakers, yet no one has ever succeeded in matching it.


Rosenbaum also provides thorough context for the film at his blog.


Eric Henderson for Slant:

Along with the dissolve of sexual signifiers, Vigo also conveys a certain motif that even within the anarchy of life there is a sense of inevitability. At the very moment that Jules visits a fortune-teller in Paris, Jean tells Juliette that he dreamed she would soon leave him. Just as the fortune-teller’s prediction that Jules’s cards are good (later on he narrowly avoids losing his job, as well as Jean’s), the dream foretells of the couple’s impending separation. When Juliette finds herself enamored with Paris to the extent that the city is no longer Jean’s gift to her, he pulls anchor and leaves her there. The underlying theme of cosmic unity and predestination reaches its apotheosis in the stunningly frank eroticism of Jean and Juliette’s fantasy sex tryst. Vigo presents both of them stroking and embracing themselves alone in their separate beds with a fantastic sensuality (Juliette traces her collarbone with her fingers, Jean kisses his own bicep). The crosscutting becomes more forthright and the actions begin to appear parallel (Jean’s head swoops downward and Juliette buries hers in the pillow, suggesting oral sex). As the characters achieve catharsis, so does Vigo’s use of thematic repetition, and the result combines to form an absolute cinematic orgasm. Vigo’s L’Atalante, in its mature illustration of sexual freedom and psychosexual intuition, stands as one of the most beautiful and rich celebrations of human connection in the history of cinema.


Luc Sante for the Criterion Collection:

Its blending of the real and the fantastic is so silken it can almost pass unnoticed, which is what led early viewers to undervalue it. James Agee, who was agog at the daring of Zéro de conduite when both movies were released in the United States in 1947, could term L’Atalante merely “spasmodically great poetry applied to pretty good prose,” which in contrast to the freedom of the earlier picture “suggests the strugglings of a maniac in a straitjacket.” Viewers looking for shock could easily miss the radical restraint of L’Atalante, which in any other filmmaker’s oeuvre could have come a decade after Zéro de conduite rather than a year. When, for example, the couple are apart and the image cuts between them lying in their separate beds, the erotic charge is potent if ghostly—as if the film were a phenakistoscope, the early optical device that relies on persistence of vision to overlay two images, the illusion that they are in the same bed is both there and not. The outrageously lyrical sight of the bride swinging on the barge’s boom in her nuptial gown is handled with such matter-of-fact brevity that it almost slips by as another item in the boarding process. Meanwhile, all of Vigo’s anarchist dynamite is off-loaded onto Père Jules, the old mate who is at once the movie’s conscience and its comic relief.

L’Atalante does contain the world—all of life in miniature: work and love and play, dream and lust and adventure, rapture and heartbreak and reconciliation, and birth and death by implication. You could think of it as made by a filmmaker who knew he was about to die and intended it as a last will and testament, stuffed to the corners with his love for the world. Then again, he left no fewer than twenty-six uncompleted film projects, seven of them his own scripts, as if he were intending to live to be ninety. Either way, L’Atalante combines the headiness of an ascent with the accrued wisdom of a terminal statement, a conjunction seldom found in movies, or anywhere.


Joseph Jon Lanthier on the Criterion release, also for Slant:

L’Atalante steadily gestates into film’s greatest and most idiosyncratic reflexive allegory, a series of simple but interlocking tropes and symbols that, much like those in Gertrude Stein’s poetry, indelibly and freely influence one another rather than simply appearing eloquently interchangeable.

The reunion between Jean and Juliette in the former’s cabin might be Vigo’s most accomplished exchange, a glorious compromise between the gestural and the symbolic. Before collapsing in an ignited, prurient heap on the hard, wood floor, they stare at one another in disbelief. When Juliette first moves toward her husband, he backs away—not brusquely, but with incredulous slightness. Contained in that minute turn of the torso is a lifetime of happiness-to-follow, a blink and a pinch and a gut check at the remarkable luck of having cultivated a relationship that can withstand not only estrangement, but the clichés of betrayal, despondency, and contrition as well. They have proven themselves worthy of their connubial bliss, and they need not apologize. They need not think. They need only melt into one another.


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