The people involved in making films often achieve a kind of immortality. That is especially true for French director Jean Vigo, whose last feature film, L’Atalante, was screened at the Detroit Film Theatre on March 10, 2012 as part of the DFT 101 series.

Vigo, who suffered from tuberculosis, died in 1934 at the age of 29, while finishing L’Atalante. Perhaps he sensed that his contribution to movie history would be reflected mostly in this film, so he filled it with enough filmmaking quality to cause DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm to remark, before the screening, “It’s difficult to introduce a film that is one’s favorite film of all time, and this happens to be mine.”

That remark made me and probably others take a closer look than usual at the movie we were watching, as L’Atalante unreeled across the DFT screen. Elliot’s comments were very significant, when you consider the thousands of movies that he has probably seen in his life, and the many ways that DFT programming has helped shape the tastes and film knowledge of DFT visitors.

It was easy to see how this could become someone’s favorite movie. The film pulsates with life, thanks mostly to the modestly expressed beauty of Dita Parlo, who must adjust to her new life as the wife of a man who works on a barge. Vigo is often noted for his “poetic realism,” and if you’re not sure what that is, just watch this film, especially the last 15 minutes.

The movie also made enthusiastic and creative use of many cinematic techniques, including unique camera angles and very active compositions (thanks in part to cats who wandered all over the barge). Much credit also goes to the ensemble acting where each character constantly revealed something important about themselves through their reactions to other characters and to different situations.

Interestingly, two of the participants in the filmmaking of L’Atalante would later be involved in films that are among my favorite movies.

Dita Parlo played a small, but significant role, in Grand Illusion, the 1937 Jean Renoir film that screened at the DFT a few years ago. The mysterious, impressionistic camera work in L’Atalante was in part handled by Boris Kaufman, who also shot On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s 1954 Oscar-winning classic which I have enjoyed at the Michigan Theater and the Redford Theatre.


L’Atalante charged my senses so strongly that I felt compelled to linger in both the DFT auditorium and the Crystal Gallery Café after the movie was over. The fresh impressions of L’Atalante, and the emotional subtext of the film (Vigo’s early death), made this a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Art and Life. Vigo poured himself into this work, perhaps in the same way that Irving Thalberg pushed himself to produce memorable films at M-G-M before his death at the age of 37 in 1936.

The recently enlarged screen at the DFT makes it easier to watch movies from the balcony. After L’Atalante, I gazed around the beautifully ornate auditorium, reminded once more how the auditoriums of the DFT, Michigan, and Redford help enhance the movie-going experience. You’ve just watched a great film, the lights come up, and you are surrounded by all this wonderfully preserved architecture.

In the café, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations about the film, as I relaxed with a snack and admired the elegance of the windows, mirrors, and high ceiling of the café. While in line, I overheard a woman talk about how the 4 p.m. showing of the 87-minute L’Atalante and the 7 p.m. screening of the new French movie The Conquest worked out perfectly because it gave her and a friend time to stop in the café.

So now I look forward to the DFT helping ensure the immortality of another special part of film history—the silent film. Fans of this type of movie will have the chance the weekend of March 16-18 to enjoy three classics from that era:

  • On March 16-18 (and 23-25), the original silent version of Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), along with A Trip to the Moon (1902), by Georges Méliès, the subject of the recent movie Hugo
  • On March 17, for DFT 101, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin

So if the Oscar-winning The Artist sparked or renewed your interest in the “old-time movies” of the silent era, the DFT next weekend will be the perfect place to continue that interest.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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