If you are a fan of my populist stuff, look away now. Come back next post.
That’s just a friendly warning that “Atalante” brings out every particle of totally unreconstructed intellectual film nerd within me. So much here has influenced everyone from James Cameron to Martin Scorsese that scenes will seem familiar, because the lighting and photography techniques that broke ground in this still have huge influence today.
Jean Vigo knew he was dying when he directed this. He was 29. Life in a barge on the river is used as a homage to being outside the normal way of life in France. “Atalante” presages the build-up to war in Europe and draws out the extraordinary divisions then (and now) taking place in European society.
At the start, we are at the wedding of Jean and Juliette. Look at the loving way the camera lingers on the clothing worn as class signifiers. Hats, coats and shoes all delineate the societal roles with the fur coats and elegant shoes being in sharp contrast to the cloth coats and shabby hats of other male and female characters.
It’s a triumph of showing a small town being ripped apart. Juliette has fallen in love with the captain of a barge between Le Havre and Paris. On her marriage, she’s leaving home for a very particular and outsider way of life.
Her mother’s collapse and tears on the riverside feel very moving. On the boat, our newlyweds have a Titanic moment so obvious you may mouth “I am the king of the world” as you are watching.
Cats, old style gramophones, mechanical toys and travelling salesmen get in the way and show the divisions between our hero and heroine. She wants to see Paris; he isn’t bothered, because he sees it often.
The way they are portrayed separately, asleep, filmed through the same reflections of net, is just stunning. The underwater photography manages to be artistic and natural. When flowers are thrown on the water, there are so many heavy symbols, yet the scene feels real and poignant.
You get the significance of the name? Atalanta was a pretty nifty goddess. Left on a mountain, because she wasn’t a boy, she learned to hunt and run better than the boys. Even after she married, she had an amazing life and may have been the only woman on the Golden Fleece.
By calling the barge “Atalante”, Jean Vigo makes a profoundly feminist statement. Yes, bits of the plot don’t agree with this, but you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.
I couldn’t help but contrast this Le Havre of 1934 with that shown in the new film “Le Havre”, which I reviewed recently. It’s a great place to use as a backdrop for films about excluded people.
The remastered version beings out the lighting, shadows and river views more vividly. The scenes of changing locks manually, while guiding the boat, virtually feel like 3D.
The very small but appreciative Stratford Picturehouse audience stayed quiet and either speak good French or managed to get a great deal out of the subtitles. It was brilliant to be in a very respectful audience in this venue.
Michel Simon is the stand out of the cast, as the deputy captain. He has such wonderful comedic and tragic moments. Dita Parlo and Jean Daste are just fine as the young leads. Gilles Margaritis is also extremely good as the moment of flirtation that almost dooms the marriage before it has time to flourish.
Every scene is just wonderful. Gaumont is justifiably proud of this and has put great effort into creating the remastered version, with lots of studio time going into assisting the process.
This is the best movie ever for lots of people I respect. It’s in my all-time top five.
Maurice Jaubert’s music and the whole cinematography team deserve some special mentions too.
But this is Vigo’s obituary, forced to completion as his health fails. We should all be so lucky as to leave an equally wonderful legacy.