Jean Vigo was the first poet of modern cinema. Of course there were great directors of the silent era like Murnau and Lang, but their emotional range was rarely much above Victorian dime-store romances, morality plays or crime novels.
Vigo was different. He brought a modern indifference to absolutes and types, a dreamer's knowledge of inner states, a realist's understanding of the complexity of desire and a romantic's eye for the beauty of industrial landscapes and plain country girls. And he did all this with just one full-length film, L'Atalante, the first film we showed when we began the film club in 2007. A statement of intent. Either you understood or you didn't. Not that we picked it for that reason but it worked out that way.
Many of the 120 people who turned up clearly thought we were resurrecting the old film club and all the social implications of that. What they got were two relative nobodies with poor networking skills and absolutely no snob value at all. Oh and a film often voted one of the best ever made. Shouldn't that have been enough?
Maybe they couldn't see passed the love of mood over contrived drama, maybe it didn't tell them what to think, or maybe it just didn't pander to the kind of romantic narrative we've become used to, the kind perfected at much the same time by Frank Capra in It Happened One Night.
Pretty heiress on the run meets tough-guy reporter and they bicker all the way to a happy ending. In fairness, it's a great film, but it ends where real life takes over, before the question can be asked. How could these two live together after the adventure of their 'meet cute' has ended?
L'Atalante begins there. The happy couple, marching through the village on their wedding day. It's the kind of procession that would end a Jane Austen adaption. But it's part of this film's emotional realism to want to explore the difficulties of maintaining love after the inital flush of romance.
The courtship has obviously been swift. This girl trapped in a small village dreaming of escape meets a handsome(ish) bargeman. It's surely part of the attraction for her. The excitement of escape.
But soon the monotonous day to day routine of barge life begins to bore her and resentment grows towards her husband for not being whatever she imagined him to be. Add in the unsettling, brute presence of the old seadog, Jules, fascinating and frightening her with his tattoos and gruffness, and it's not surprising her head is turned by another man and dreams of big city life.
It's a river journey film, (name me a bad one), with water as a symbol of poetic vision, a metaphor for the search for love. And it's full of the shyness and yearning of desire. But unlike Murnau's Sunrise, say, L'Atalante locates sexuality within the marriage not outside it, another sign of it's modern sensibility. Tragically Vigo died soon after making this, the original DNA of European cinema, as if its perfection left him with nowhere else to go. We should all be so lucky to leave behind such a fitting epitaph.