Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Directed by Jean Vigo and written by Vigo and Albert Riera from a story by Jean Guinee, L’Atalante is the story of a river barge captain and his new wife as they live their new life together on the river barge with his first mate and a cabin boy The film is about a couple trying to start a new life only to deal with complications in the world of marriage. Starring Jean Daste, Dita Parlo, Michel Simon, and Louis Lefebvre. L’Atalante is a ravishing and rapturous film from Jean Vigo.

The film is a simple story about a newlywed couple who spend their life on a river barge ship as the groom is the captain as he is joined by his first mate and a cabin boy. Yet, it’s a story that explores a newlywed dealing with marriage as the captain Jean (Jean Daste) tries to balance his role as captain and husband where it doesn’t become easy as his bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) has no clue in being the wife of a river barge captain. Though she would eventually get used to it and gain the friendship of the first mate Pere Jules (Michel Simon), Jean becomes jealous of men who pursue Juliette as she wants to see Paris and have fun.

The film’s screenplay by Jean Vigo and Albert Riera play into a newlywed couple’s life as the first act is about Jules and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) trying to get used to Juliette being around while the second act is about Jean’s frustrations with marriage. Then comes this third act where it isn’t about the decision that Jean makes but its impact on the ship itself as Jules and the cabin boy become concerned for Jean and Juliette.

Vigo’s direction is truly exhilarating for the way he explores the world of a newlywed marriage where Jean and Juliette spend their honeymoon in a river barge ship going around the rivers of France where they would stop in Paris. Much of the compositions in its close-ups and medium shots are quite simple yet they have a wealth of imaginative images such as Juliette watching Jules do a puppet show that would arouse some jealousy for Jean. The ship itself is a character in the film as it is quite cramped and such where Jules’ cabin is a place that delights Juliette as opposed to the less-adventurous world of Jean.

Vigo’s approach to reflective shots in the mirror are dazzling as it this dream-like sequence that has this air of eroticism without the need of gratuitous sexual content. There’s also some sequences such as Jean’s swimming underwater as it plays into Vigo’s idea of love and a man lost in the decision he has made forcing the one person who was reluctant to let marriage be around his work to take action. Overall, Vigo creates a very sensational and enchanting film about a newlywed couple living in a river barge ship.

Cinematographers Boris Kaufman, Louis Berger, and Jean-Paul Alphen do excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white cinematography from the way many of the nighttime exterior and interior scenes look as well as the look of the rivers in the daytime scenes . Editor Louis Chavance does fantastic work with the film‘s stylish editing with its odd rhythmic cuts and some stylish dissolves for the erotic dream sequence. Art director Francis Jourdain does brilliant work with the look of the ship known as L‘Atalante as it is one that is full of personality despite the cramped interiors. The sound work of Lucien Baujard and Marcel Royne is terrific for the way some of the accordion music and other recordings are heard on location as well as the quietness of the rivers. The film’s music by Maurice Jaubert is amazing for its whimsical score as it is often accompanied by accordions to play into some of its humor and drama.

The film’s cast includes some notable small roles from Gilles Margaritis as a charming peddler that Jean dislikes, Maurice Gilles as the river barge company chief, Charles Goldblatt as a thief that Juliette encounters, Raphael Diligent as a scrap dealer Jules knows, and Louis Lefebvre as the young cabin boy who is often bossed around by Jules though he is always helpful. Michel Simon is great as the old first mate Pere Jules who is reluctant about having Juliette on board on the ship only to become a friend as he also deals with Jean’s frustrations. Jean Daste is superb as the barge ship captain Jean who tries to deal with his role as captain and husband as well as his jealousy only to lose sight of what he has. Finally, there’s Dita Parlo in a radiant performance as Juliette as she is this beautiful bride trying to understand her new world while wanting to go to Paris as it’s a really a dazzling performance that adds a lot of elegance to the film.

The 2-disc Region 1 DVD/1-disc Region A Blu Ray of The Complete Jean Vigo set from the Criterion Collection presents the film in 1:33:1 full-frame theatrical aspect ratio in a new high-definition digital transfer with Dolby Digital Mono in French with English subtitles. The first disc of the DVD features a feature-length audio commentary track by Vigo biographer Michael Temple. Temple’s commentary not only talks about the film and its innovations but also the production where it would contribute to Vigo’s declining health. Temple also revealed the many different versions of the film as the version that is presented on TV and in home video is a sixth version that was supervised by Vigo’s daughter Luce and Bernard Eisenchitz based that is a revision of a 1990 restoration that tried to present a completed version of the film.

Temple’s commentary also talks about the performances and how much the film was very different from the original script written by Jean Guinee as Vigo wanted to infuse ideas that subverted the original script’s intentions. Notably in incorporating some documentary ideas into the film while allowing his actors to improvise and flesh out the characters more as the script didn’t do much for them. Temple would also reveal that the actors not only praised Vigo but also reveal the sense of humor he had as he was ill during the production because of the cold winter during the shoot. Though he was able to be involved for the film’s rough cut, he wasn’t directly involved in the final cut due to his illness though editor Louis Chavance was able to make the film through Vigo’s instructions despite the re-cuts it would have through Gaumont studio. Temple also revealed how it would be re-discovered in the coming years as it was praised by the people of the French New Wave that would give the film a second life as it’s a very informative and enjoyable commentary from Temple.

The second disc of the DVD features many special features relating to the film and Vigo himself. The first is a one-hour and thirty-eight minute 1964 French TV episode of Cineastes de notre temps about Jean Vigo. Directed by Jacques Rozier, the episode discusses a lot about Vigo’s childhood as well as the production of Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante with interviews from many of Vigo’s friends and collaborators as well as actors Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, and Jean Daste. There’s also discussions about Vigo’s father and how being known as the son of renowned anarchist made him a pariah during his teens until he was finally accepted into a school which would become the basis for Zero de Conduite. The actors talked about Vigo’s sense of freedom in the way he allowed his actors to do so much more as it had this sense of anarchy as this documentary is definitely a must-see for those new to Jean Vigo.

The 18-minute conversation from 1968 between filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on the film L’Atalante is a video presentation made for a TV broadcast of the film where Rohmer asked Truffaut about the film and what it means to him. Truffaut talks about the film and its influence in modern cinema as he believes that Jean Vigo was way ahead of his time in what he was able to present. Especially as Vigo did much of his work outside of studio sets and into locations where he would often make things up as he went along as it’s a truly fascinating segment from two of France’s great filmmakers.

The forty-minute Les voyages des L’Atalante documentary from film historian/restorer Bernard Eisenchitz. Eisenchitz showcases footage that was cut from the film as well as rushes and alternate versions through many cuts of the film. Some of which involved butchered cuts due to the film’s initial poor reception from theater owners in its original 1934 premiere. It would take many years for lost scenes to be restored where a 1990 restoration would create what was considered to be the definitive version of the completed film until 11 years later. Eisenchitz reveals a lot about what was presented in its initial and re-cut version to what would be presented in its various restoration versions.

The twenty-minute 2001 interview with filmmaker Otar Iosseliani on Jean Vigo. The French-Georgian filmmaker talks about Vigo’s influence as well as L’Atalante and how much of an impact it was for him and for cinema itself. Especially as he saw it in film school in the Soviet Union where it was considered a major impact for the new and emerging filmmakers at the time where Iosseliani discusses some of the little things about the film that he loved as he had seen it many times in its different variations. A forty-five second animated tribute film from Michel Gondry is a wonderfully animated short that features references to many of Vigo’s films as it is told with some whimsy by Gondry.

The DVD set also includes a booklet that features four essays relating to Vigo and his films. The first of which is by filmmaker Michael Almereyda that is named after Vigo. Almereyda’s essay talks about Vigo and his impact in cinema as someone who wasn’t just ahead of his time but was someone who managed to retain a sense of youthfulness in his work without the need of becoming old and tired. Almereyda also talks about his films and Vigo’s brief life as the many issues he had ranging from his poor health and the dark shadow his anarchist father had cast upon him. Yet, Vigo would manage to plant many seeds that would create the many ideas of what would become the French New Wave. The second essay entitled A Propos de Jean and Boris by Robert Polito is about A propos de Nice and the collaboration between Jean Vigo and his longtime collaborator in cinematographer Boris Kaufman as it plays into not just their desire to break the rules of conventional cinema. It's an essay that showcases what their collaboration did and how it fitted with this growing wave of avant-garde films that were emerging at the time though A propos de Nice was something different and far more accessible than what Vigo's peers were doing at the time.

The third essay entitled Rude Freedom by video maker B. Kite is about Zero de Conduite where Kite discusses many of Vigo’s aesthetics and how Vigo’s thirst for anarchy would be such an inspiration for many films in the years to come. Kite also discusses about the film’s characters and some of the ambiguities of the film as it relates to these two ideas of ludis and paidia where the film definitely plays into the idea of the latter. The fourth and final essay entitled Canal Music by writer Luc Sante talks about L’Atalante and its impact in French Cinema in the years after it was released. Sante discusses many of what happened in the film and how it took an original story from another writer and made it into something more. The booklet is a great accompaniment to a glorious set of films for one of cinema’s great filmmakers.

L’Atalante is a magnificent film from Jean Vigo. Armed with a great cast, a whimsical score, and dazzling images, it is truly one of the finest achievements in cinema. Though it would be the only feature film that Vigo would make, it is truly unlike anything that is out there as it has this great mix of fantasy and realism. In the end, L’Atalante is an outstanding film from Jean Vigo.

Jean Vigo Films: A propos de Nice - Taris - Zero de conduite - The Auteurs #34: Jean Vigo

© thevoid99 2014


ruth said...

Wonderful, thorough review Steven. I'm sadly not much acquainted w/ French cinema and even less so of Jean Vigo's work but L’Atalante sounds intriguing! It'd be fun to see the Parisian scenery as well, thanks for bringing this to my attention.

thevoid99 said...

This is definitely one of the great films that everyone must see. It's just full of magic and it will certainly showcase why Vigo was so important to French cinema. I will divulge more about Vigo in my Auteurs piece as I hope it will come out later this month or early next month.