Every ten years since 1952, the world-renowned film magazine Sight & Sound has polled a wide international selection of film critics and directors on what they consider to be the ten greatest works of cinema ever made, and then compiled the results. The top fifty movies in the 2012 critics’ list, unveiled August 1, include twenty-five Criterion titles. In this series, we highlight those classic films.
Jean Vigo died at age twenty-nine, thus leaving behind a very small body of work. The few films he made, however—including the radical short documentaries À propos de Nice and Taris and the legendary, forty-four-minute tale of school rebellion Zéro de conduite—are ample evidence of a preternatural cinematic talent. His only completed feature, L’Atalante, is something particularly special. By turns realistic and surreal, this extraordinary love story follows two newlyweds, Jean and Juliette (the remarkably sensual Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo) as they embark on a new life together aboard the barge on which Jean works. Their romantic bond is soon tested when Juliette rebels against this life of labor. L’Atalante is a visual tour de force and a work of intense emotional immediacy, and it has proven highly influential for many directors. (There’s even a major film award, handed out annually to this day, called the Prix Jean Vigo.) In this clip, filmmaker François Truffaut talks about the amazement he experienced when he first saw L’Atalante, which he considered one of the greatest films ever made.
In L’Atalante, Vigo represents both the pleasures and the difficulties of love and marriage in swift, poetic details. With simple visual brushstrokes, he immerses the viewer psychically in the newlyweds’ lives. In a dreamlike scene that ranks as one of the director’s finest, Jean dives to the river bottom and imagines he sees his beloved there, just out of reach. Their bodies move gracefully in an underwater ballet.