L’Atalante (1934)

Toronto Film Society presented L’Atalante (1934) on Monday, February 18, 1952 as part of the Season 4 Main Series, Programme 6.

SIXTH EXHIBITION MEETING – FOURTH SEASON
Monday, February 18, 1952    8.15 p.m. sharp
Royal Ontario Museum Theatre

Pacific 231   (France 1949)   9½ mins

DIRECTION:  Jean Mitry
SCRIPT:  “An Essay”:  Jean Mitry
PHOTOGRAPHY:  André Tadie, Jean Jarret, André Périe
EDITING:  Jean Mitry and Mark Ducoret
MUSIC:  Arthur Honegger

Based on Honegger’s music, “the film is not a documentary but an attempt to create an atmosphere by associating visual impressions and familiar sounds intimately mingled with a musical score.”  Many of the remarkable shots taken from the train in motion were achieved by using an automatic camera.  The film won the cutting prize at the Cannes Festival in 1949.

Feelings of Depression   (Canada, 1950)   32 mins

DIRECTOR:  Stanley Jackson

Produced by the National Film Board for the Mental Health Division of the Department of National Health and Welfare, in co-operation with the Allan Memorial Institute of Psychiatry, McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, Quebec.

The National Film Board of Canada’s “Mental Mechanism Series” of Psychiatric films, originally intended only for the use of psychiatrists, were later released through urban film libraries and rural film circuits in Canada; then ventured farther afield to attract considerable attention in New York, at Edinburgh Film Festivals and elsewhere.  In Europe, this series has encouraged support of mental health projects in several countries.  Dr. Griffin, Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, reported recently:  “In Holland they are using these films for parent education and discussion groups.  In Denmark, ‘The Feeling of Rejection’ stimulated the organization of a National Mental Health Association which is now seeking membership in World Federation.  In Sweden, the M.H.A. is so interested in the films that they are seeking official permission to use the original negative in order to dub in Swedish commentary and dialogue”.

Each of these films dramatizes a case history of one type of mental disturbance.  Generally considered the best of the series to date, Feelings of Depression won a First in the Non-Theatrical Class in the Canadian Film Awards last year.  Seeking the causes of a young business man’s feelings of guilt and depression, the film surveys his emotional life from childhood and his relations with his parents, brother and wife–suggesting a way out through the growing resources of psychiatry.  Skilfully directed and photographed, it is not a merely clinical but a human and moving film.

The River   (U.S.A. 1937)   31 mins

DIRECTION AND SCENARIO:  Pare Lorentz
PHOTOGRAPHY:  Willard van Dyke, Stacy Woodard, Floyd Crosby
MUSIC:  Virgil Thomson
NARRATION:  Thomas Chalmers

One year after producing The Plough that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz made The River for the Farm Security Administration.  It is a panoramic story of the Mississippi River basin, of the vast agricultural and industrial expansion which led to its exploitation and ruin, and of the efforts made to control its flood by reforestation and the T.V.A.  Beautifully photographed and with a lyrical commentary now classic, The River has come to be considered a masterpiece of the American screen.

L’Atalante  (France 1934)

DIRECTION:  Jean Vigo
SCRIPT:  Jean Guinée
ADAPTATION and DIALOGUE:  Jean Vigo , Albert Riére
DESIGN:  Francis Jourdan
MUSIC:  Maurice Jaubert

CAST:  Dita Parlo (Juliette), Jean Dasté (Jean), Michel Simon (Le Pere Jules), Gilles Margaritis (Hawker), Louis Lefebre (Boy), Maurice Gilles (Barge Owner), Rafa Diligent (Bargee).

Jean Vigo’s activity in the cinema took place between 1927 and 1934.  He left only two documentaries and two feature films–but all are unforgettable.  Both Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante were made against every possible obstacle that ill-health and inadequate budgets could produce and both met with opposition from the Paris censor and distributors.  A few months after finishing L’Atalante, Vigo died at the age of 29 years.

It is agreed among film critics that his death was the greatest loss that the French cinema has ever sustained.  He was a completely fearless filmmaker, and a man who was determined to use the film as an artist should for the purpose of honest expression.  “His films have something beyond Pabst and Stroheim.  Their disenchantment is mature in the real meaning of the word.”

Richard Girffiths

It is well to remember that Vigo’s plots are not the classic, hermetically sealed constructions designed to produce suspense by themselves alone; they are slight, very loosely knit, and not at all purposeful.  The plot of L’Atalante could not be simpler.  It is a tender-bitter story of a newly-married couple who start their life together on a barge.  The story begins with their marriage (“She had to be different” grumble the wedding party over the bride’s choice of a husband: she is a country girl who has never left her native village); the film ends with their reunion and reconciliation after she has run away from the barge and her self-centred, jealous husband to discover the glamorous city life in Paris of which she has dreamed so long.

In its apparently artless realism L’Atalante is the direct ancestor of the modern Italian realist school, exemplified by such films as de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Visconti’s Ossessione.  It is not concerned with the niceties of studio lighting, the elegant use of the camera and careful montage all designed to achieve a succession of dramatic points in the development of the story.  … The realism of L’Atalante is as spontaneous, as “un-arranged” as possible; (and with it is combined a fantasy which is sometimes called surrealism).  The emphasis is on numerous little single episodes, each more pregnant with suspense than the commonplace story itself, and once in a while the film breaks into Vigo’s half mad, strangely majestic kind of poetry.  (The opening passage, in which Jean and Juliette in festive attire proceed like strangers, silently, side by side, through the forest across the field to the beach, far ahead of the wedding party, is a perfect piece of poetry.)

The skipper of the Atalante is as ordinary a young man as the one standing next to you on a French ‘bus, and so is his wife, who combines a natural shyness with an innocent eagerness to regard marriage as an initiation into the adventure and glamour of travel and city life.  Vigo illuminates our observation of this couple in their love-making and horseplay and quarrelling by means of the so-called surrealistic interludes which he introduces into the film.  … When the separation occurs soon after their marriage, frustrated desire and remorse for what they have done combine to drive them half-crazy; the young skipper dives into the canal and swims under water while an image of his wife in her white bridal dress with its veils floating slowly turns round and round.  When they reach the coast he rushes madly out to the sea verge in obedience to Freud.  Over-and-above this deliberate use of the water imagery, the half fantastic wooing of the girl by the mate in his cramped and filthy cabin filled with mysterious and sinister relics from his travels all over the glove, and by the showman-pedlar in the little bar to which the morose, jealous and un-romantic husband takes his wife, together represent a world which is half image, half reality.  Vigo is quite prepared to use these forms of partial fantasy to underline the psychological situation of his hero and heroine, who, as we have seen, are in themselves a very ordinary couple.  The mingling of these two worlds–the natural, grey world of the barge and the illuminated world of fantasy–is completely satisfying in L’Atalante.

There is also a rich vein of humour running through the whole film, and Michel Simon as the mate creates one of the finest comic characters to be found in the French cinema.  Vigo’s sense of humour entirely preserves his films from catching the disease of the avant-garde–a portentous seriousness about psychological matters.  …

The main faults of this film are, curiously enough, to a certain extent assets.  The photography is very rough–but how could it be otherwise unless the barge had been made artificially in a studio or every scene shot in special lighting and special weathers?  This is an everyday story photographed in everyday lighting.  The continuity is also rough, but to have made it smooth and rhythmic would have been to make it, dramatically speaking, self-conscious.  Episode follows episode without any attempt to create dramatic closing scenes.  … But the main principle of such realistic films as L’Atalante, to achieve unity of atmosphere and faithfulness to the kind of life shown, is maintained and the film, Vigo’s main work, can always be shown as proof of the fact that his untimely death lost us one of the most imaginative of film-makers.

Roger Manvell:  Revaluation – 9 – in Sight and Sound Feb. 1951

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MEMBERS’ EVALUATIONS:

Due to unforeseen circumstances, a number of the comments which were mailed to
233 Grenadier Road are not available to your programme-notes editor as we
“go to press”.  Extracts from these will appear in our next notes.

External ReturnFavorable Comments:  “Well above average, excellent acting, well achieved atmosphere”—“Competent ease with which camera is used; crackling intensity in deliciously malicious treatment of family upstairs”—“Photography, lighting, etc. were ¾ of picture; well cast, dwarf’s role interesting and revealing”—“Sincere, honest background; realistic study of young lovers; marvellous atmosphere”—“To director’s credit that many scenes did not need subtitles”.

Unfavorable:  “Cocteau has completely failed in his attempt to reduce the external scale of the legend without reducing the inner scale of its significance; the film has a thinness, a lack of point, which is quite horrifying; fails to justify the contemporary setting; film always at cross purposes with itself, its air is sickly and mean; lovers not so much ‘living in another world’ as not alive at all”—“Many points of weakness; last scenes lacked follow-through on punch of opening ones; Cocteau didn’t make the most of his latitude in presentation”—“Deleted sections spoiled picture; too many events essential to continuity omitted; many titles could be omitted”—“Too much statuesque posing of Jean Marais’ profile; not much acting on Madeleine Sologne’s part”.  One member found it unbelievable that Patrice would “turn over” Nathalie to his uncle.

The Love of Jeanne Ney:  Favorable Comments:  “Excellent photographic imagination”—“Realistic”—“Wonderful marvellous terrific great!!!!”—“Liked it very much; murder scene tremendously good; three cheers for sound-effects man!”—“Camera exellent”—“Wonderful interpretation; historical facts help make it realistic”—“Very exciting and tense story; parts of villain and Jeanne excellently portrayed”—“Phone effect excellent”—“So good to see a full length story rather than one of today’s ‘short’ features”—“A pleasure to watch Pabst’s skilled job of silent film-making; steeped in fascinating, pungent European atmosphere; vivid supporting performances; many sequences forcibly reminiscent of Von Stroheim.”

Unfavorable:  “Trivial melodramatic plot frame and love story which I didn’t fell interested director much”—“Ending not up to par with rest of film; sound effects very poor and lacking in good taste”—“Ended in the middle”—“A little long”—“Slow”—“Sound effects disturbing; conventional melodramatic ending disappointing”—“Sound effects utterly ridiculous; destroyed the mood; I could see the bell and phone were supposed to be ringing”—“Old-fashioned story, unworthy of its good treatment; please! no more sound effects! worse than unnecessary, as well as an insult to our intelligence”—“I feel it (the film) is all part of a huge and successful practical joke by the executive against the audience!”

Short Subjects:  The World of Paul Delvaux:  “Fascinating subject, good camera work; unconventional, surprising continuity; but accompanying verses read in artificial, monotonous singsong voice”—“Showed good cross-section of female types, but as a film must have cost considerably more to make than it was worth”—“One of the best shorts I’ve ever seen; bizarre, unusual talent, impossible to express in any other manner; enjoyed style and subject matter of paintings; editing, angles, closeups, music, very good; could see many more of same type of film”—“Rhythmically intense beauty that sets it poles apart”.

Muscle Beach:  “Has an easy slyness that’s completely original”—“Had everything in it which I do not like, and I enjoyed it; rather subtle for an American production”—“Subtly amusing in spite of subject”—“unconventional, funny and satirical”.

Minuet and Hungarian Dance:  “Fascinating, cleverly done”—“Entertaining but nothing extraordinary”—“Interesting but hard to watch; not nearly as good as Begone Dull Care“—“Well developed for a pioneer work; some effects very representative of music’s picture value”.

Goemons:  “Tellingly grim, bleak atmosphere; lovingly shot and directed”—“Good ‘straight’ photography”—“Interesting in portrayal of life on island, but needed more elaboration on the various individuals; narration alone wasn’t convincing enough”—“One of the most brilliant documentaries I have ever seen, despite vile music and often too hard lighting”.

Pen Point Percussion:  “Very interesting”—“Excellent, informative”—“McLaren delights but hurts the eye”—“Most informative”—“Most interested in exposition of synthetic-sound technique; ‘Dots’ and ‘Loops’ two worthy though apparently not popular examples of McLaren’s individual art”.

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CURRENT FILM NOTES

To Live in Peace has come and gone the way of all European films at the International.  Probably the fulsome raves of the New York critics on its original release were an over-estimation; not doubt certain elements in the film had a greater impact in 1947 than they could today; pretty certainly the last scenes are sentimental rather than deeply felt; still and all, most of the way it has charm and humor and humanity, with director Zampa pulling off with happy success several sequences that might have been merely silly or farcical; Aldo Fabrizi is, as usual, immense, and it’s worthy of your patronage.  Hope you caught it during its 8 days’ showing–if not, let’s face it, you are one of the reasons why foreign films fail so disastrously and quickly at this house!  Anyway it’s to be hoped that the Studio or someone will give it a second-run.

In Bright Victory, director Mark Robson tells with sympathetic understanding, intelligence and uncommon ease (at times even with near-documentary instructiveness) the story of a blinded veteran’s adjustment to a new dark world an its people.  Arthur Kennedy could scarcely be better.

If you get a chance to see a movie called Jungle of Chang, you’ll find it a charming, absorbing and seemingly authentic account of an agreeable young Siamese couple who build a home in a jungle clearing, cultivate their own rice field, contend with animals and so forth.  Shot on the spot by a Swedish company.

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