Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: L'atalante

Year of Release  1934
Country  France
Length  85 min.
Director  Jean Vigo
Screenwriters  Albert Riera, Jean Vigo (story by Jean Guinee)
Cinematographers  Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman
Editor  Louis Chavance
Set Designer  Francis Jourdain
Original Score  Maurice Jaubert
Cast  Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Michel Simon

Beauty  L’atalante’s visuals are an unusual mixture of grainy, jumpy location shots and lyrical, carefully composed surreal images.  As the film goes on, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between the “realistic” imagery of dirty streets and rusty boats and the “magical” imagery of cats playing records and lovers’ faces appearing in the sea.  It’s as if director Jean Vigo is unveiling a hidden layer of reality that reveals that the world is more delightfully anarchic than it usually seems.

Strangeness  It isn’t enough to say that L’atalante is original – it is also one of the most unpredictable, bizarre, and impossible-to-imitate films in the entire history of cinema.  The film was butchered by unsympathetic studio editors (and then more or less put back together in a 2001 remaster), yet it seems to have leapt directly out of the filmmakers’ heads, like a wonderful dream that the whole world can share.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The story of L’atalante could hardly be more basic – two newlyweds (Dita Parlo and Jean Daste) take a boat trip for their honeymoon, accompanied by an unruly, perpetually drunk sea captain (Michel Simon) – but the way it is told, through a series of vividly weird digressions, allows the film to mimic the young lovers’ sense of wonder about the world that they are only beginning to explore.

Tradition  With its combination of realism and surrealism, L’atalante unites the two basic strains of filmmaking, documentary (Lumiere) and magic (Melies).  In doing so, Vigo had an unmistakable influence on the French New Wave of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, though not even the best of Truffaut or Rivette can match L’atalante’s elegant stream-of-consciousness.  Though Vigo was undeniably a singular filmmaker, directors ranging from Leos Carax (whose The Lovers on the Bridge owes an unmistakable debt to L'atalante) to Apichatpong Weerasethakul have picked up on his signature grounded lyricism.

Repeatability  Because no film has ever managed to duplicate L’atalante’s unique tone, it still feels as strange and revolutionary as it must have in 1934.  Michel Simon’s endlessly inventive performance as sea captain Jules (one of the finest pieces of character acting available on film) never wears out its welcome.  The same could be said for Maurice Jaubert’s lovely, romantic score, or the felines who seem to jump out of every corner of the ship, or pretty much any other aspect of the film.

Viewer Engagement  L’atalante may simply be too strange and too charming to watch passively.  And since the audience is basically following the shipmates as they sail around France, it often feels as if the viewer is part of the voyage.  It’s easy to get sucked into L’atalante’s world, which has its own incomprehensible logic yet resembles our own.

Morality  If L’atalante is indeed revealing a hidden, magical layer of reality then it is doing all of us a great favor.  But even if it is simply a poetically offbeat love story, it is one of the most evocative, open-hearted depictions of romance in all of cinema.  The messy, unruly romance of the central couple animates everything around them, and the film's love for the oddities of the world is palpable in every frame.

L’atalante passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Another film known for its lyricism, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.

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