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REVIEW – L’Atalante (1934)

January 6, 2012

FilmJuice have my review of the Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, which is being re-released in cinemas by those noble folks at the BFI.

Though not quite as subversive or as loveable as Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (with which Vigo’s film shares the incomparable Michel Simon), L’Atalante still offers a fascinating portrait of a style of life that has long since been extinguished.  Set on a French canal barge, the film explores the tension between a young woman’s desire to be with her husband and her desire to see the outside world. Evidently a man of his times, L’Atalante concludes that young women probably should stay close to their husbands but while Vigo seemingly has little affection for the life less civilised, he does an absolutely brilliant job of capturing all of its glamour and mystery:

While the film ostensibly takes its name from Jean’s ship, the ship’s name refers to the Greek mythical figure of Atalanta who refused to marry until one of her suitors could beat her in a footrace. Like many strong female mythological characters, Atalanta is something of a feminist icon but Vigo presents Juliette’s escape in decidedly ambiguous terms. Indeed, while Jean is clearly a stick-in-the-mud Vigo’s depiction of Juliette’s travails in the outside world make it clear that he thinks that the best place for her is with her husband. The only thing preventing the sexism fairy from getting to this film is the fact that Jean effectively falls apart once he realises what he has lost in Juliette. While the strength of Daste’s performance and the affective power of Vigo’s depiction of Jean’s despair prevent the film from ending on a sour note it is interesting to see that it is Father Jules and not Jean who manages to track down and ‘save’ Juliette suggesting (in accordance with the myth) that it may be the colourful Jules and not the drably professional Jean who is Juliette’s true soul-mate.

Given that our media landscape is increasingly concerned with the new and the fresh regardless of its quality, it can feel oddly contrarian to go and see an 80 year-old film at the cinema. After all, these types of film are all available of DVD so why would you bother to go and see them at the cinema when you could go and see Ghost Protocol instead? The answer is that there is still something unique about seeing old films in the way that their creators intended. To be held spell-bound by images of people long dead in a world long disappeared is a really strange but entirely rewarding experience that I simply cannot recommend highly enough. Go and see this film in the cinema and, believe me, you will be glad that you did.

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