Black-and-white revival of a gem of world cinema

Some say they remember hearing something about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. But those in the loop of world cinema speak with unbridled admiration of Jean Vigo’s «L’Atalante,» though few of them know the pains taken to restore the film, shot in 1933, back to its original, uncensored form in 1991. The history of «L’Atalante» could inspire a detective novel as its «trail» appeared, was lost and reappeared for half a century: Vigo succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934 before having the chance to see the final cut of his film; the first screenings were a complete flop; and those few who spoke of a masterpiece were only justified several decades later. Like most pioneers, Vigo was shunned in his time. Though he only made four films – of which only «L’Atalante» is full length – the celebrated French director Francois Truffaut draws parallels between Vigo and «the humanist Jean Renoir and the visionary Abel Ganz,» while film scholars have gone so far as to make reference to one of the greatest poets of cinema, the «Rembeau of film.» Next Sunday at 9 p.m. at the Danaos Cinema in Ambelokipi, Athens, the restored copy of «L’Atalante» will be screened in Greece for the first time ever, as part of a tribute to Vigo organized by the Premiere Nights festival and Cinema magazine (in cooperation with Media Desk). The event, which runs from tomorrow until September 19, will also feature the French filmmaker’s «A Propos de Nice» (filmed documentary-style and influenced by the Russian school of film), «Taris, Roi de L’Eau» (a film based on the life of swimming champion Jean Taris) and «Zero de Counduite» (a film which was initially banned by censors for its reference to the uprising of students in a boarding school). Dynamic images Truffaut, one of Vigo’s most fervent supporters, once said that it would be impossible for him not to include «L’Atalante» in a 10 Best Films list. Indeed, the power of Vigo’s incisive look at such a mundane event remains deeply and clearly imprinted in memory. He relates a love affair with great sensitivity, poetry and romance, while also infusing his film with a subversive style bordering on the downright demonic. «L’Atalante» tells the story of Juliette, a young country girl, and Jean, a sailor, who get married and live on the barge Atalante with an old seadog, Father Jules. The barge heads for Paris, a city of lights that entices Juliette to leave her husband. Set in the one of the darkest periods of the Depression, «L’Atalante» shows how Juliette faces the harsh reality of poverty; the unemployed, the thieves and the starving masses. Regretful of her flight, she returns to her beloved Jean and with the help of Father Jules, all’s well that ends well. Vigo has taken the little things that make a relationship – the tiffs and quarrels, the tender moments – and transformed them into a celebration of black-and-white imagery. Poetic, dream-like, unexpected and non-conformist scenes rivet the audience to their seats. Using a story of passion, Vigo composes an entire world, or, better yet, many parallel worlds. Truffaut argues that «L’Atalante» combines the two dominant trends of cinema: realism and aestheticism. He continues to say that in the history of cinema there were great realists such as Rossellini and great aetheticists such as Eisenstein, but very few were interested in combining the two trends, as did Vigo. An odyssey «L’Atalante» was filmed in the winter of 1933-34 under extremely harsh conditions, while Vigo’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He was only able to see the first cut before dying. Gaumont agreed to distribute the film but only on the condition that they would be allowed full rein in editing. The producer, Jacques-Louis Nounez assented to their terms and the film was screened for the first time in Paris in September 1934 under the title «Le Chaland qui Passe.» At the same time, it was screened in London with the title «L’Atalante.» In both countries, the press reception was lukewarm and the film was consigned to the shelves. Fifteen years later, the French cine clubs «discovered» Vigo. In a three-hour screening, his opus was brought back to life and from 1950 onward, efforts were made to reconstruct the shorn «L’Atalante» by the French Film Library. By the 1980s, there had been as many versions of «L’Atalante» made as there were copies. In 1989, Gaumont’s interest in the film was renewed, this time in earnest, and it began researching the original material from scratch in order to create a loyal reconstruction. The good news eventually came in the early 1990s from the British film archives: They had found a copy of «L’Atalante» in a box dated 1934, while in Brussels, another copy was found titled «Le Chaland qui Passe.» Gaumont went through Vigo’s personal notes, interviewed people who worked with him and used modern digital technology to deliver a reborn «L’Atalante» in 1991. The story of «L’Atalante» has finally reached its end and this masterpiece, which was doomed from birth, has been given a new lease on life. The swan song of a great poet of cinema Jean Vigo was born in Paris on April 26, 1905. The son of anarchist militant Miguel Almareyda, Vigo never really recovered from his father’s mysterious death in jail when he was 12, or from being abandoned by his mother. His film «Zero de Conduite» (1933) draws on his own experience of the boy’s boarding schools to which he was sent. He became involved in film when he was 23, working in cinema and filming with his own camera. His first film was the short documentary «A Propos de Nice» (1930), which is currently on display at the Tate Modern in London. Two years later he filmed «Taris, le Roi de L’Eau.» His greatest work, however, is «Zero de Conduite,» a 1933 film which was censored for its «anti-French» spirit. Vigo died on October 5, 1934. «L’Atalante» was his last film. The screenplay for «L’Atalante» was written by Jean Guinee and the dialogues by Albert Riera and Vigo. It stars Dita Parlo as Juliette, Jean Daste as Jean and Michel Simon as Father Jules. The original music is by Maurice Jaubert and cinematography by Jean-Paul Alphen, Louis Berger and Boris Kaufman.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.