Lyrical, haunting, comical, surrealistic, beautiful, sad, magical: this newly restored print of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante shifts the adjectival gears into overdrive.
Made in 1934, the film was so out of kilter with the conventional currents of its time that, like the Seine river barge, L'Atalante, that provides most of its setting, it floats down the years like a time-cap'sule, capturing ttiB texture of ordinary lives in an earlier age with an unusually heightened sensibility.
The film had a long and chequered history. Director and co-writer Jean Vigo died of septicaemia before he had the chance to make last-minute adjustments and the film was severely cut (and released under another title) to mollify hostile exhibitors. Despite this, it has long been a cause celebre. Various deteriorating versions have been in circulation for years, but last year French restorers were astonished when they learned a virgin 1934 print, a kind of cinematic Holy Grail, had been discovered in the British Film Archive.
It is this, plus other material Vigo shot but never had the chance to edit into the film, that provides the basis for this restoration, which premiered last year at Cannes.
[At one stage in L'Atalante's splintered life span, there seemed to be as many versions of the film in circulation as there were prints! In 1989, however, having gained access to new material, Gaumont Films decided to repair the injustices and errors of the past. The revisions include a 'new' segment showing Juliette's first escape which has been missing from all known versions. The famous wedding march scene now contains even more nuances thanks to rediscovered footage, as do the celebrated scene where Michel Simon 'smokes' a cigarette in his tatooed navel and an optically treated moment when he fights with himself.]
Described in outline, the story is simplicity itself: the relationship of a freshly married couple - a hick from the sticks (Dita Parlo) and her barge captain husband (Jean Daste) - ebbs and flows as they travel down the Seine accompanied by a physically grotesque but gentle old salt (Michel Simon), a cabin boy and a cavalcade of cats.
Stylistically the film is hard to place, a sign, of course of its visionary nature. Passing comparisons could be made with the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson in the way that France and its inhabitants are captured with a strangeness that brings them closer to reality.
The film's exploration of the tenderness and tensions of young love are without a single false note. Why it is considered a masterpiece and its director one of the cinema greats, despite it being his only full-length feature, Should become quickly apparent. - Lynden Barber