Classic Film Club: 'L'Atalante'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Jean Vigo’s dream romance ‘L’Atalante’ (1934)

Jean Vigo was a filmmaker who seemed to delight in misdirection. His first film, ‘A Propos de Nice’, is social satire masquerading as travelogue. His most famous work, the extraordinary ‘Zero de Conduite’, is anarchism disguised as cheeky kids’ farce (though evidently the disguise was ineffective – the film was banned for decades before being rediscovered and lauded by the New Wave). ‘L’Atalante’ presents itself as a love story – the script was expressly chosen to reign in Vigo’s rebellious tendencies and force him to make something commercial. It failed abjectly – the film was recut, retitled and dumped into cinemas as its 29-year-old director lay dying of tuberculosis.

The plot is unashamedly hackneyed – simple country girl Juliette (Dita Parlo) gets married to Jean (Jean Dasté), a barge captain, and taken to live aboard his boat, L’Atalante. She gradually tires of the rivergoing life and is tempted away by the bright lights of Paris. Her husband, initially furious, comes to realise his love and determines to get her back.

But it’s what Vigo does with his material that makes the film outstanding. It begins simply, humorously, with Michel Simon’s crusty old pilot Père Jules and his teenage sidekick welcoming the young bride aboard. There are already hints of something extraordinary happening – the photography is unusually fluid, the camera placements unerringly precise, and Père Jules is constantly surrounded by yowling stray cats. As the boat pulls away, the bride’s friends and family stand on the dock with cold, expressionless faces, waving robotically.

There’s no point at which the film takes flight, the effect is more gradual, a slow and sensuous process of induction into the world Vigo creates, a world of careful, peaceful, indescribable beauty. A scene in which Père Jules tours Juliette around the treasures he has collected in his travels around the globe vacillates between witty and ribald, bizarrely seductive and genuinely frightening, as Jean’s inexplicably jealous rage turns on the two innocents. A later scene, as the young couple visit a coffee house dancehall, transforms first into a lovably amateurish song and dance sequence, before spiralling into a sort of balletic bar brawl complete with slapstick pratfalls and jawdropping stunts.

And always, beneath the joyful, languorous surface, a threat is waiting. A scene at the railway station, in which Juliette’s purse is stolen by a loitering thief, becomes wildly sinister as a baying crowd hunts down the transgressor and drags him bodily down the street, and a bearded midget cackles in the poor girl’s ear. Her time in purgatory continues with a snowbound sequence in which the girl, bereft, searches for work, trudging past bolted factories and silent queues of workers. Always, Vigo’s aching social consciousness threatens to overwhelm the narrative, but never succeeds – our attention is drawn back to the lovers and their plight by what is simply one of the most outstanding, unexpected sequences in cinema, a scene of telepathic love, a daringly sensual, forcefully suggestive moment of sheer, entrancing beauty.

L’Atalante is unlike anything else in contemporary or modern cinema. It is a film in which a dogged and persistent crew of talented and creative people, led by an indisputable genius, worked their fingers to the bone to create something which bears almost no signs of their struggle, existing as it does on an almost ethereal plane. But it’s also a film in which reality must, and does, intrude, allowing for scenes of extreme and heartrending poverty and emotional degradation, which somehow manage to enhance rather than disrupt the swooningly romantic central narrative. All in all, an astonishing experience.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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