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April 26, 2006



Jean Vigo - 1934
New Yorker Films Region 1 DVD

What better way to celebrate Jean Vigo's 101th birthday than to see one of his films? The obvious answer is to see all of his films, the two shorts and two features. As it was, I saw L'Atalante for the first time in over thirty years. One benefit is that the DVD release is closer to the version of the film Jean Vigo had in mind, rather than the edited version I had seen previously.

I was struck by how most of the shots in the film use either high or low angles. Only briefly is the camera positioned facing straight ahead. At times the shots appear as if the viewer were huddling with Dita Parlo, Jean Daste or Michel Simon. Vigo also employs ground level shots with the characters running from or to the camera. To describe the visual quality of L'Atalante in this way to those who have yet to see this film suggests that the film is disorienting to watch. Instead L'Atalante is not only quite watchable, but visually cohesive even three different cinematographers. As Jacques Rivette wrote about Vigo: "He suggests an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world."

At the time I had first seen L'Atalante, Vigo was experiencing renewed popularity both with this film, but more so with Zero for Conduct. Linday Anderson's If . . . was acknowledged as being influenced by Vigo's first feature, and at the end of the Sixties, any film about children in revolt could not be timelier. I had first seen Zero in a double feature with Duck Soup in the summer of 1969 at Wayne State University in Detroit, with the films under the banner of "Revolution '33". I use to have a copy of the first major study of Vigo, published in 1971, written by P.E. Salles Gomes. At the time, Vigo was something like the James Dean of French Cinema. There was an assumption that Vigo's death at twenty-nine deprived the world of a great film artist. Considering how difficult it was for Vigo to get financing, and with Zero for Conduct banned for being "anti-French" and L'Atalante a box office disaster, one has to question what would have happened had Vigo survived his tuberculosis. Even Jean Renoir struggled throughout most of his career to get financing. On the other hand, had Vigo made more films, would the Cahiers du Cinema crowd dismiss him as they had Marcel Carne and Rene Clair?

Setting aside questions about Vigo's reputation, L'Atalante should be enjoyed for its various pleasures. Michel Simon's Pere Jules shares some of the boisterousness of his performance as Boudu. Vigo's sense of humor includes shots of Simon working on the barge with a kitten holding on for its life on Simon's shoulders, and a scene where Simon thinks he is able to make a record play with his finger on the disc. Quite beautiful are the shots of Jean Daste swimming under water looking for Dita Parlo in spirit as seen in the above still, the work of Boris Kaufman. Francois Truffaut and Julien Temple have both discussed having their eyes openned by Vigo. L'Atalante is "poetic realism" at its dreamiest.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 26, 2006 02:33 PM