Jean Vigo started his short filmmaking career in the early '30s as an unpredictable iconoclast. Known for his inventive style and refusal to toe the line, Vigo was considered trouble for the major French studios.
But Gaumont Studios, one of the biggies, took a chance on Vigo by assigning the young director a simple melodrama about newlyweds living on a barge. Their reasoning was that something so traditional and lightweight would force Vigo to assume a similar stance, resulting in a commercial property.
Their reasoning was wrong. Vigo turned that ho-hum-sounding plot into "L'Atalante," a movie of strange and beguiling charm that consistently makes the international lists of the all-time best films.
"L'Atalante," which screens this evening at Cal State Fullerton in a double bill with Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," has gone through quite a journey since it was released in 1934.
Vigo died of leukemia shortly after shooting and wasn't around for the final edit; the studio tampered with his experimental style but couldn't ruin it. A truncated version didn't do well at the box office, but a copy closer to the original was released in 1940 and fared better, especially among cinema devotees. Recently, "L'Atalante" came out in a near-pristine print with 10 minutes of original never-seen footage.
The plot is misleadingly mundane: Jean (Jean Daste), a barge captain, marries Juliette (Dita Parlo), and they start a life on the French canals. Like many newlyweds, they find marriage difficult. We discover that the apparently naive Juliette is actually rather complicated, with a passionate curiosity. Jean is more grounded, but he loves her completely.
Vigo takes the simple surface and uses inspired scene development and Boris Kaufman's bold cinematography to make it all extraordinary. The expressiveness of pure romance and the abiding virtues of the human spirit may sound like a highfalutin' way to describe "L'Atalante," but that's really what it's about at heart.
Besides its unusual look (visions appear in the water and superimposed dissolves and other camera work create other surprises), the movie features a great performance by Michael Simon as the eccentric first mate, Pere Jules.
His desire to flirt with Juliette makes for one of the film's most whimsical passages--while his pet cats play around him, Simon demonstrates his skill at wrestling, dancing, singing and what have you. She's delighted with all his comic energy, and it's easy to see why.
Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante" screens tonight at 9:30, following Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" at 7:30 p.m., at Cal State Fullerton's Student Center Theater, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Free. The CSUF Associated Students film series ends May 15 with a Gus Van Sant double bill, "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho."(714) 773-3501.