*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 Poll Rank: #12
Over the short course of this series so far, there have been films that were examples of the trends of their time (like Au Hasard Balthazar) and films that paid homage to prior works (The Searchers). However, this week's film, L'Atalante, is an example of a film that was ahead of its time, forgotten for decades only to be rediscovered and hailed a classic. Specifically, director Jean Vigo's film - the only full-length feature he made before his death in 1934 at the age of 29 - became an influential work in the French New Wave, with Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) citing it as an inspiration.
So how did a film so unpopular and derided upon its release, about a "barge dweller" and the woman he marries, become one of the foundational films of a movement that wouldn't exist for another 20+ years? There are some touches of the New Wave in the plot of the film, in which barge skipper Jean (Jean Daste) marries Juliette (Dita Parlo) and brings her aboard his vessel, which they share with Pere Jules (Michel Simon) and a cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre). Most New Wave narratives shun traditional three-act storytelling in favor of a more impressionistic style, stitching together related scenes without a particular linear progression. Vigo utilizes this throughout the film, stitching together various scenes that don't necessarily progress the "story," as it were (however, though Vigo's original cut followed this schema, it is worth noting that the restoration of the film adds a fair number of previously-cut scenes).
However, the film's true New Wave influences lie in the way Vigo chose to make the film. Though Parlo and Simon were both established stars in France at the time - the studio that produced the film, Gaumont, hired them with Vigo's approval - Daste was not, having only appeared in two of Vigo's previous shorts. Many other minor roles went to non-professional actors as well. One of the most significant features of New Wave cinema (and Italian Neorealism) was the use of amateur actors in major roles, as this would be more "real" than using classically-trained actors. Editing also plays a crucial factor here: L'Atalante moves to a rhythm of it's own, with some scenes frequently intercut while some extend beautifully to their natural end. This would later be reflected in the New Wave, as cuts would not just vary in length but be juxtaposed in interesting and unexpected ways.
It's not exactly surprising that New Wave filmmakers would find inspiration in the brief filmography of Vigo. Vigo's father was a known anarchist, and Vigo himself spent much of his childhood on the run with his family. That influence shows up in several of his earlier shorts, especially thematically. In L'Atalante, however, it appears more in the style of the film than the substance. Despite being a full-length film from a major studio, with established stars and popular appeal ("barge-dwellers" were big in French pop culture in the 1930s), Vigo made the film in a way that was markedly different from the popular films of the time, unknowingly laying the groundwork for a fundamental movement in cinematic history.
The history of film is littered with cast-offs that would become major influences in later years. L'Atalante, however, holds the distinction of being ahead of its time as a cornerstone of the French New Wave, which in turn would help shift the concept of filmmaking into an art.
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Seven Samurai (1954)