Friday, November 11, 2005


1934, France, directed by Jean Vigo

Vigo's second and final film was so under-appreciated on release that the producers cut 25 minutes from the running time and gave it a new title, and it wasn't until years later, and more than a decade after his early death, that his critical reputation was born. It's ironic, then, that the passage of more years hasn't been kind to L'Atalante, which appears very dated in parts, and whose underlying slightness is ever more apparent. It's a romance, following the early wedded months of a barge captain and his new bride on the canals; the barge's wildly eccentric mate, played by Michel Simon, is a key figure in both their lives. More than most talking pictures, the link with silent days is very apparent: it's not hard to imagine the film without dialogue, particularly in the scenes between the married couple, whose acting style is as wide-eyed as in many a silent. For the most part, their story is rather routine: the film comes alive when Simon (one of the least handsome actors ever to achieve stardom) is on-screen, despite the fact that his gruff line readings are almost incomprehensible at times. His character's colourful personal history is rendered in vivid, amusing detail. While the plot is of the thinnest variety, it is nonetheless possible to discern something of what made Vigo unique in his time: there's a rawness that's the opposite of all that establishment cinema of the time stood for, and a willingness to experiment formally that inevitably impressed itself on the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague in the late 1950's. There's also a frank eroticism in several scenes that remains startling even today.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States