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A haunting masterwork suffused with fevered, dreamlike eroticism, the sole feature film of the short-lived director Jean Vigo is one of the glories of the cinema.
That a director who died so young (at age twenty-nine) and made so few films (one feature and a handful of shorts) should rank as one of the most admired and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema is a manifest miracle — and Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, restored to its original version by Gaumont after a long history of mutilation, re-editing, rescoring and renaming, cannot be seen too many times, so infinite are its mysteries. Released after Vigo's death, this haunting masterwork follows newlyweds Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) on a slow river barge trip to Paris, accompanied by the filthy, tattooed Père Jules (Michel Simon), who lives amongst a swarm of cats and keeps the forearm of his dead best friend pickled in a jar. Vigo's account of the young couple's separation and reconciliation, suffused with fevered, dreamlike eroticism, has inspired any number of subsequent directors, from Godard to Truffaut to Bertolucci to Leos Carax (the latter also saluted in a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective this seasion). "L'Atalante does contain the world — all of life in miniature: work and love and play, dream and lust and adventure, rapture and heartbreak and reconciliation, and birth and death by implication" (Luc Sante).