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.

[I later learned that he finished directing this film, his only feature film, weeks or months before dying at the age of 29. The film was taken out of his hands and edited by others.]

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 or Terminator 2: Judgment Day for the first time.

It wasn’t a feeling; it was an experience. It wasn’t like I was watching a masterpiece unfold, or at the end, like I knew that I had 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 tasted 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 4,000 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 four 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, 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. It was so creative and unexpected that I can understand why numerous voters of the 850 academics and 350 directors gave it a wrap..

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 most slender ever – already a cliché 15 years 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?

From the invention of film, and the first stories recorded on celluloid, film – as I perceive it – is like theatre: It’s not real: The characters are actors.The location is a set.

It’s a concoction.There’s 10, 20, 30 people behind the camera watching actors say their lines. Like in theatre, while ever actors are moving around in the film, I know there’s a film crew – the audience – watching the performance of every scene before an edit is made. That’s the

first audience

That performance, from dozens of takes, is cut together and presented to a second audience. The

second audience

of course is:

  • the viewer in 1934 in a cinema
  • the viewer in 1990 in a cinema or at home
  • the viewer – me – in 2017 at home

Having watched the film and gone to bed, the next afternoon I started searching for more information about the film. In doing so, I discovered more details about the context of the film and the man who made it, Jean Vigo.

Reading other opinions, however salient or ridiculous, is the part I love the most of writing about the context of a film in history. Sometimes I don’t read anything that adds to my own thoughts of the film I’ve watched and sometimes I get a few new insights or a lot of new insights.

In my observations so far of the great films I’ve watched, I’ve hardly given context to the films I’ve examined by quoting other opinions, but there are two I’d like to iterate here. A perceptive one and an ignorant one:

In 1990, 10 November, the Washington Post published a brilliant, insightful, analysis by a staff writer, Hal Hinson. If I could describe or understand this film as well as he has, I would be giving you my words and my thoughts. But I can’t, and he did.

Hinson describes the ebb and flow of this film’s unfolding in tremendous, wonderful words. I could not describe it so well – if I lived to be a thousand – let alone equal his insight and love:

Jean Vigo’s 1934 masterpiece… is an exhalation of lyric sensuousness. Rapt, exuberant and as fragile as mist, this passionate tone poem drifts in its own bubble of oddly dissonant, almost fatalistic romanticism.”

L’Atalante” is the most perishable of all the great works of the cinema, and the least imposing. There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo’s style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.

No other great master has left behind a smaller body of work than Vigo. In addition to “L’Atalante,” his only feature, he made only a couple of documentaries and, in 1933, the 47-minute “Zero for Conduct.”

L’Atalante,” which was released in Paris shortly after the director died of leukemia at 29, is more straightforward in its approach to narrative, but only by comparison to his earlier work…

The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it the way Juliette does.The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there’s a logic to the way in which it’s ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They’re organized by feeling, not intellect.What’s intoxicating about Vigo’s style is the way in which the prosaic reality of the life on the barge is charged with luminous undercurrents. Though the love story is at the center of the film, the narrative, such as it is, keeps being commandeered by Simon’s Pere Jules or, during the couple’s trip to a Paris cafe, the peddler who attempts to entice Juliette into spending a night in the city with him. In one blissful sidetrack, Jules gives Juliette a tour of his cabin, which he maintains as a storehouse of memorabilia from his travels around the world, and as each new bit of exotica is unveiled we’re transported far away from the barge’s cramped quarters.

Simon’s unruly vigor threatens to burst open the seams of the movie’s evanescent spirit; you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that he’d been an orangutan in a previous life. Yet without him the movie might slip into a stupor. When Jean discovers that Juliette has slipped away into town, he decides to shove off alone, leaving her deserted on shore where the barge had once been docked…

Driven half-crazy by Juliette’s absence, Jean remembers what his bride had told him about the water revealing your love to you and dives overboard to search for her. Swimming frantically, he has a vision of her floating off in the distance in her white bridal gown, just out of reach.

In its elusiveness and ineffability, that image could stand as a miniature for the whole film — for that matter, for the director’s entire career. As a believer in transcendence and passionate disruption, Vigo was always taking the plunge, following his heart into the ragged margins of life. He had a genius for disorderly, haphazard eloquence, and his dedication to anarchy made it impossible for him to follow the conventional steps. Even in this newly restored version — which contains some nine minutes of additional footage — the picture remains magnificently unresolved, an obscure, submerged treasure, gloriously outside our grasp.

In 1947 the New York Times published an article by A.H. Weller about a new screening of Vigo’s films which was dismissive, except for one phrase that exists now as a laughable backhanded compliment:

What the late Jean Vigo was attempting to illustrate back in 1933-34… is nebulous and difficult to perceive today. Except for occasional moments of comedy, satire, and tender romance, these intellectual exercises should prove of high interest only to avid students of the cinema. Vigo’s… Count Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante are examples of avant-garde pictures which have now become passé.


In BFI’s voting in 2002, 11 Critics/Academics voted for it (including Gilbert Adair and Michel Ciment) and 4 directors voted for it (including Jim Jamusch and Roger Michell)

In BFI’s voting in 2012, 58 Critics/Academics voted for it (including Derek Malcolm, David Thompson) and 17 directors voted for it (of which I only knew Samantha Morton and Andrey Konchalovsky)


Largely forgotten until restored

22 AUGUST 2017

A Few Observations by Philip Powers © 20170822

General Regard – 

2012 Academics: #12 Ever – All-Films
2012 Directors: #22 Ever – All-Films
2002 Academics: #16 Ever – All-Films
1992 Academics: #6 Ever – All-Films
1962 Academics: #10 Ever – All-Films
1958 Cahiers du cinema: Top Ten – All-Films

The above article written by Philip Powers is protected by copyright and under Fair Use, 10% of it may be quoted or reproduced, if properly credited, in another work. It may not be reproduced in its entirety in any form without the written consent of the author.

The author can be contacted at philiprwpowers@gmail.com. © 2017


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