Last night I finally watched, L’Atalante which features on many top ten film lists. I was very excited, having moved it up the list to watch earlier than I’d scheduled.
As is my custom, I didn’t read anything about this film before watching it. I knew it was directed by a man called Jean Vigo. I knew it was European, probably French. I wondered if it had anything to do with the land, Atlantis. I didn’t even know it was made in 1934.
So, every moment as it revealed itself, was a fresh moment of vision and audio, that hit me like hearing Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast for the first time or The Rite of Spring for the first time, or seeing the original painting by one of the Masters for the first time or seeing Metropolis (1927) or Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) for the first time.
It wasn’t a feeling. It wasn’t like I was watching a masterpiece unfold, or at the end, like I’d just seen a masterpiece, and neither were those other experiences, the first time. What it was like, was as if I was experiencing something new, like tasting a fruit I’d never experienced before.
I’ve seen almost 2,000 films in cinemas. I’ve seen another 3,500 on television, Laser Disc, videotape or DVD. I own 3,000 films, most of which I’ve seen. What I’m getting at is that I’m not surprised by many films anymore.
In the last 44 years I walked away surprised very few times out of those 2,000 films in the cinema. The Parallax View (1974) surprised me, A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), surprised me, Pi (1998) surprised me. And when I saw two older films, Tout va bien (1965), Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), De Palma’s vision of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) and Orson Welles’s interpretation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), I was also surprised. It doesn’t happen often. Probably Citizen Kane (1941) (which I saw in 1983) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) (which I saw in 1982) surprised me more than any other film I’d ever seen.
But until last night, I’ve never seen anything like L’Atalante (1934) and more than any film so far in my 100 Greatest Films in One Year project, what I watched was: fresh, new, original and constantly surprising. If I’d seen it in 1934, or even 1954 I’d have been surprised by its flow and expression.
I don’t know where it fits into the 1000 Greatest Film Ever let alone the 100 Greatest Films Ever. It was so creative and unexpected that I can understand why 850 academics and 350 directors gave it a wrap, even if after more viewings I don’t come to the conclusion that it’s a masterpiece.
If I look at it as a film made in 1933 or 1934 and hold it against other films from England, America, Germany, I’m surprised. The unfolding of all the scenes is so fluid and full of life, completely transcending the story.
In fact, the story is not the plot. It’s not even the narrative. The story is a whole lot of little scenes that happen while the plot – one of the slenderest ever and already a cliché 15 year before that – plays out.
After the introduction – which shows a couple leave the church after their wedding and make their way down to the river – once on the boat, life on the barge becomes a series of interactions that are so naturally performed that I kept asking myself, where is the camera? where is the director? are these actors, or are we watching real people?
In 1934 a camera took up a lot of room. In 1968 a camera took up a lot of room.
I kept asking myself, where is the camera? How is the camera part of these vignettes?