L'Atalante

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(1934, directed by Jean Vigo)

- inducted 2015 –

"The woman asks, 'Don't you know you can see your beloved's face in the water?' The man runs to a basin and submerges his head once, twice, three times, before rising in apparent frustration. 'I wanted to see you,' he says. The woman steps forward and cradles his face in her hands, 'Then look,' she says, 'You'll see one day when you really try.'

"In November of 1933, Jean Vigo began filming what would end up being his only feature length film. As stories go, L'Atalante is a simple thing - a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again - but what Vigo managed to make of it is anything but. It is a visual poem about two souls whose love for each other grows beyond a naive and abstract ideal into a tangible, visible, and bittersweet reality.

"Vigo presents this story as a series of vignettes, punctuated by segments of pure cinema that pull the audience deeper into the fell of the piece, conjuring mood and emotion with overlapping images of an almost furious eroticism. We feel Jean's unease at losing sight of his beloved in a dense fog that doubles as a metaphor for doubt. We see Juliette succumbing to the siren song of the city, eyes enraptured by visions of things she has only known through rumour. We see père Jules opening his cabin of curiosities to an outsider, unveiling pieces of his past with each magnificently bizarre trinket.

"And then we see a separation, and it is here where L'Atalante earns its place in film history. In a marvelosuly executed sequence of cinema, we see the torment of both Jean and Juliette as they wrestle with the absence of each other. Jean, writhing with an existential ache as the curtains cast shadows like fever blisters on his chest. Juliette, clutching the sheets, arching upwards into the invisible arms of the man she can no longer reach. Jean leaping into the water, where, at last, he sees the face of his beloved, and knows what it is he must do.

"Jean Vigo was 28 when he started filming L'Atalante, and, by most accounts, was fully aware that his time on this earth was almost over. With this film he gave us a deeply humane insight into the ways in which we learn to communicate not only with words, but with pictures that can pierce the heart, and enlighten the soul. 'You'll see one day when you really try,' said Juliette, and with L'Atalante, that is exactly what Jean Vigo has shown us how to do."

~ Donald G. Carder

Principal cast: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre, Maurice Gilles, Raphaël Diligent
Scenario by Jean Guinée
Adaptation and dialogue by Albert Riéra, Jean Vigo
Produced by Jacques-Louis Nounez
Cinematography by Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman, Jean-Paul Alphen (originally uncredited)
Art direction by Francis Jourdain
Film editing by Louis Chavance
Original music by Maurice Jaubert
Lyrics by Roger Parry
Makeup artist for Michel Simon Acho Chakatouny
Sound by Lucien Baujard, Marcel Royné

France
Duration: 89 minutes
Languages: French, Russian
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced by Jean-Louis Nounez
Released in USA by Cine Classics
Premiered in France on 24 April 1934
USA release date: 21 June 1947

Awards and honors:
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 15 October 2000