Sketchbook notes from the drifting spaces

Spirit and visual freedom in Jean Vigo’s ‘L’Atalante’

A few days ago, on the Midnight Film Festival website, which is connected to Kineattic – a Japanese organisation dedicated to promoting independent cinema – I watched the classic french film ‘L’Atalante’ from 1934 by Jean Vigo. He created only four movies before his death at the young age of 29. But this is a real cracker, a cinematic masterpiece way ahead of its time.

I didn’t quite get the gist of all the lingo as it was streamed in French with Japanese subtitles but it really didn’t matter, being more focused on real film making without too much dialogue, and visual editing that speaks for itself. The cast of Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, and the fabulously entertaining Michel Simon as the cat loving, bad mannered first mate, his young assistant, very many cats, and the ship L’Atalante herself, all communicate and interact beyond the need for much dialogue. The plot is an ordinary love story of the type standard in Hollywood, yet the emotional depth, sharp and experimental editing, performances and the repeated, dense scenes of landscape, dock, river and city all imbue the film with the rich, warm texture of the ups and downs of life and environment. No decoration or pretentious grandeur on this post marriage working barge journey, nor any critique on divisions in society or politics, but just real human cinema.

The film flows from start to finish, with quite arty editing that would have been unique at the time (and the content was seen as being too much then too, subsequently having been cut severely by the distributor Gaumont). There are some really humorous moments, such as Michel Simon wrestling, and ‘playing’ his record. I think Simon as Père Jules is almost as funny as Boudu in Jean Renoir’s ‘Boudu Saved From Drowning’. The final shot encourages that sense of life being free if we are able to live it that way, naturally I guess, and is a contrast from previous shots. The disjointed style with some long shots such as the bride and groom street take at the start, is very interesting and works well – plus it seems to have influenced many directors from the French New Wave to Kaurismaki.

Midnight Film Festival will be showing this public domain film again online on the 24th and 31st August, at 4pm GMT (through Ustream). They have some Hitchcock coming up next month too.

Watch live on the Midnight Film Festival website

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