Director: Jean Vigo
Writer: Jean Vigo and Albert Riera; based on an original scenario by Jean Guinee
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the movies that you hear so much about - making Sight and Sound’s Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time at #10 in 1962, coming at #6 in 1992, bumped down in 2002 to #17, and moving up again in 2012, coming in at #12. Inevitably you go in with unrealistic expectations that can only reach objectivity once you watch the film again, understanding what to expect beyond sheer, cinematic brillianc, which it failed to provide upon first screening, both to me and early audiences.
The story involves a newlywed couple Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) who journey downriver in a barge with a hilarious and haggard first mate Pere Jules (Michael Simon). Jealousies and Murphy’s Law coincide and we get to witness the birth of the modern rom-com formula - meet, fall in love, slow falling out, complete destruction, and the run to reunite. I suppose I can respect what Jean Vigo did in this respect. I just don’t like the formula. It’s up there with the hero's journey "Supreme Ordeal" that dominates action films (you know, where they fight the second in command to the villain as seen in Die Hard, Road House, most action movies). When you consider that It Happened One Night was made only a year later, I think L’Atalante becomes far less impressive, as the former did far more for the Rom-Com than this film has. This wasn’t some grand commercial hit. It was considered a failure and didn’t really find an audience, or receive many accolades until after the war. It Happened One Night feels far more modern and did much more to usher in the genre. I can’t help seeing this as a film whose story is more exciting than the narrative - Jean Vigo essentially died due to its production, getting tuberculosis and never recovering, and in pure, artistic fashion, the film wasn’t considered a masterpiece until thirteen years later.
Yet beyond Rom-Coms of the era, there was also Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), All is Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Scarface (1932), The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1933), King Kong (1933). Going to the 1920s we have The Jazz Singer (1927), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Metropolis (1928), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1925), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Man With the Movie Camera (1929). Am I really to believe that these films are inferior to L’Atalante? I would welcome someone to try and argue so. I don’t think Jean Vigo did anything more for film language more than Chaplin, Griffith, Lang, Murnau, or Dreyer. I respect what L’Atalante is, I just don’t get why it’s so revered over so many other films, often placed on lists of the ten greatest films ever made. Perhaps it’s another classic example of people agreeing without really examining the context. There were some cool moments, but as I read how it’s a blend of naturalism with fantastical elements sprinkled within, I still would consider Sunrise a far greater and more cinematic romance (and deserving of its S&S Top 10 placement). It had it’s moments, but I was fairly disappointed given the reputation. I’ll give it another go another year, and likely be eating my words, as history has often demonstrates with these types of films.
BELOW: The film is actually public domain, so feel free to check it out below
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