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L’Atalante
Directed by Jean Vigo
France, 1934
Cornerhouse, 15 April 2012

Jean Vigo

The story is quite banal – all about the ups and downs of a young couple’s marriage, the wife’s odyssey and return – but Jean Vigo’s film makes of it something strange and wonderful.

That wedding procession at the start, the way it meanders wildly and eventually segues into a funeral march (signified by the tolling of the bells, the chatter about how the bride is being lost to the village, the coffin-shaped barge that’s to be her home), inaugurates the weirdness and sets you up for what’s to come.  There are the curious objects to be found in the first mate Jules’ cabin, a character who has a kind of Mr. Hyde relationship with Jean, the young husband who’s also skipper.  Such as the hands of Jules’ dead friend or lover, which are kept pickled in a jar.  Jean will later writhe in a bed separate from Juliette, as  too will she (wearying from a day spent plumbing Paris’ sterile depths) and this, the most celebrated montage in the film, retains its sensual power.

By any normal measure, life dealt Vigo a rotten hand.  Orphaned at twelve, he grew up in care, an experience which formed the basis of his first film, Zero for Conduct.  His health had been seriously bad since he got tuberculosis in his early ‘20s and he died just a few day after L’Atalante was released.  It is a wonderful film, full of the mysteries of the quotidian.  An authentically surrealist film – Vigo had it in his blood – not showily, cartoonish or quirkily surrealist.

Showing as part of the Matinee Classics series, L’Atalante can be seen again on Wednesday, details here.

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