Tag Archives: French poetic realism



Format: Cinema

Dates: 20 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Jean Vigo

Writers: Jean Guinée, Albert Riéra, Jean Vigo

Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon

France 1934

89 mins

L’atalante was made in the most difficult of circumstances: the director, the 28-year-old Jean Vigo, was critically ill, the weather was abysmal, the budget was tiny, and the distributors thought the finished film worthless. They re-cut it, chopped out nearly 25 minutes of footage, and added a sentimental ballad to increase popular appeal. Unsurprisingly, it languished in obscurity until an original print was re-discovered in 1989 and restored to glory. Because it is glorious as well as witty, strange and beautiful, the fruits of a collaboration that director of photography Boris Kaufman (who went to Hollywood, and worked on On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, 12 Angry Men) described as ‘cinematic paradise’.

The story of L’atalante is a simple one: two newly-weds, a barge captain and a village girl, start their new life on the Seine. Passionately in love, they nonetheless find life tricky. The luminous Dita Parlo, who plays Juliette, craves the excitement of city life; the handsome Jean Dasté is staid and jealous as Jean. They fight, make up, and then Jean abandons Juliette when she sneaks off to Paris, and sails the barge (the Atalante of the title) away; but both are heart-broken by the separation. Vigo and Kaufman make it magical, ethereal and romantic (with a haunting score by Maurice Jaubert), but with dashes of surrealism and social realism.

L’atalante opens with the wedding, which has all the solemnity and sorrow of a funeral. Jean and Juliette wander across fields towards the barge, followed by the villagers dressed in black. On the barge the anarchic Père Jules (Michel Simon), with his coterie of kittens and cats, and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) are getting things ready for the bride. Juliette lands on the cargo hoist and in the passionate embraces of Jean, with fog enshrouding the boat.

And then life begins in earnest, with Juliette getting to grips with a year’s worth of dirty laundry, and negotiating the masculine territory in the claustrophobic confines of the barge. Père Jules is initially suspicious, but when Juliette visits his cabin of curiosities, jammed with musical boxes, broken automata and bric-&#224-brac from his travels (including a jar that contains the hands of his best mate - ‘it’s the only thing I have left of him’) the tattooed old salt and the young bride form a touching alliance (a friendship that sends Jean into a frenzy). It’s Père Jules who rescues Juliette from Paris, where she’s washed up in a rundown hotel called The Anchor and working in a musical shop, wistfully listening to songs about sailors and water.

Juliette’s Depression-era Paris is initially intriguing, but it rapidly turns into a nightmare. Life is equally miserable for Jean on the barge. In an erotically charged scene the separated lovesick couple feverishly dream of each other, covered in darting spots from the film filters. It’s a beautiful example of Vigo’s inventiveness, a single instance of a treasure chest of images, from the beautiful underwater spectacle where Jean attempts to see a vision of his true love, to a witty little vignette where Père Jules runs his fingernail along the groove of a record and hears music playing. He bewilderingly repeats the gesture until the camera pans back and reveals the mischievous cabin boy playing the accordion. It’s a joyous flight of fancy, touchingly emblematic of the film itself.

Eithne Farry

Les enfants du paradis

Les enfants du paradis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 November 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur


163 mins

It’s a wonder that this wonder-filled film ever got made. Work began on Les enfants du paradis in 1943 when France was occupied by the Germans, there were power shortages, rationed film stock, and a suspicious Vichy government that declared that films couldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. The epically involving Les enfants du paradis runs at three hours, and the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner were forced to make their contributions clandestinely. To have made a simple, domestic drama in these circumstances would have been impressive, but Marcel Carné’s film is a riotous, romantic costume melodrama, with magnificent sets: the action takes place in a foggy duelling ground, backstage at the theatre, in a grand mansion and a rough and ready rooming house with over a thousand extras, many who were in the Resistance, milling through vividly recreated 1840s Paris.

The opening shot is a tumultuous, joyful street scene, a miracle of perspective in which a thronging crowd mass along Le Boulevard du Crime, in the theatrical district, where a dizzying array of street acts, from strong men to tight-rope walkers advertise forthcoming attractions. The camera gradually focuses on individuals in the crowd, Garance, the enigmatic heroine of the film, played with a cool, self-possessed insouciance by Arletty, and aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who flirts with her. Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, Garance is saved by the melancholy Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who wittily mimes the true circumstances of the crime, earns a rose from Arletty’s breast, and is immediately overcome with love. There are two more men in Arletty’s life: Lacenaire, a ruthless dandy of the criminal underworld with a villainous moustache, a frilled shirt and a neat line in bleak, cut-throat wit, and the Count Edouard de Montray, a cold-hearted, upper-class duellist who makes his aristocratic appearance towards the end of the first part of the film.

Affection, unrequited love, jealously, obsession and artistic ambition are played out against this theatrical background. It’s a complicated film that explores the nature of performance, with Baptiste’s clever mimes adding an extra layer to poet Jacques Prévert’s witty, stylised script. Baptiste acts out his heartbreak on the Funambules’ stage, as he falls in love with a statue, played by Garance, who comes to life and heads off with Harlequin, acted out by Frédérick. In the second half of the film (entitled ‘The Man in White’), the love story remains as complicated as ever, an unhappy, but involving drama of domestic pragmatism versus melodramatic passion. The ending returns to the crowded boulevard, crammed with festive Pierrots, for a spell-binding finale.

Carné’s film about actors acting was made in the most trying of circumstances, but the elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and lovely, poignant orchestral score reveal nothing of the harsh realities of life in occupied France (many of the extras were starving members of the Resistance). The post-war nouvelle vague critics initially admired this impressive example of French poetic realism, but with its careful attention to detail and stylised script, it was a far cry from their own, spontaneous guerrilla-style approach to storytelling and filming and they soon turned against Carné, dismissing his work as the quaint, hidebound ‘cinéma de papa’. Yet Les enfants du paradis, for all its costume drama accoutrements, has a surprisingly subversive heroine in Garance. Older than the typical starlet, enigmatic rather than beautiful, she is entirely self-possessed, her character is adventurous, mysterious, prepared to experience all that life has to offer, and a deliciously elusive counterpoint to the emotional melodrama that surrounds her. Even Truffaut conceded in the end: ‘I have made 23 films, well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis‘.

Eithne Farry