Three surrealism-tinged shorts and one feature are the sum of Jean Vigo’s work before he died aged 29 from tuberculosis, yet they have assured him cinematic immortality.
The tale of a young bride joining her husband on the barge where he works with the coarse, ursine Père Jules (Michel Simon), L’Atalante is rooted in a pungent, earthy naturalism that, in Vigo’s hands, becomes the springboard for flights of film poetry. Estranged by boredom, then separated when Juliette (Dita Parlo) flees for the excitements of Paris, the film visualises the lovers’ mutual longing with sensuous immediacy, as when Jean dives into the Seine and imagines his lost love in the water alongside him. Vigo’s open-air spontaneity and low-budget lyricism were a key influence on the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s.
“No one achieved more in less time than Jean Vigo – how would the history of cinema be different if he had lived past 29? L’Atalante remains raw, strange, radical and singular. You don’t watch it so much as you are immersed in it, swimming through visions like the lovesick barge captain when he plunges into the river in search of his lost bride. No film embodies more fully and purely the inherent fluidity, surrealism, realism, eroticism and ghostliness of cinema.” Imogen Sara Smith