L'Atalante

Fri, Jan 20, 2012, 00:00

Directed by Jean Vigo. Starring Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon Club, QFT, Belfast (and IFI, Dublin in February), 89 min

EVEN IF Jean Vigo had not bequeathed two of cinema’s least disputed masterpieces, his impossibly romantic biography would surely have survived anyway.

Dead at 29 in 1934 after a long battle with tuberculosis, Vigo, the son of murdered militant anarchist Miguel Almereyda (it spells out merde, get it?), lived in a garret. The famous barge overrun by feral cats at the heart of L’Atalanteis an echo of the feline-infested loft where the film-maker himself was born.

French authorities had already banned Zéro de Conduite, Vigo’s anarchic 1933 celebration of youths run amuck, when his cinephile benefactor, Jacques-Louis Nounez, handed the director a smaller, safer project.

On paper L’Atalante(1934), presents a mere honeymoon squabble: new bride and village girl (Dita Parlo) has joined her skipper husband (Jean Dasté) and many cats aboard the titular vessel when her desire to see Paris causes friction. She runs off and he, in turn, sails off defiantly without her. It doesn’t take long for each to realise that they’ve perhaps been a little rash. But have they missed the proverbial and actual boat?

It’s a tiny premise, but one that Vigo lavishes with a mythological quality. The lover’s tiff becomes not only Homeric in its dimensions but a rehearsal of every battle. The couple’s separation and final desperate search for one another are, in turn, presented with all the urgency of high Hitchcock.

At a time when Martin Scorsese and Michel Hazanavicius are revisiting cinema in its infancy, behold the moment when the movieverse came of age.