This past Friday, Northwestern University’s Block Cinema concluded its series dedicated to legendary film programmer and cinephile Henri Langlois with a screening of L’Atalante, Jean Vigo’s unwavering masterpiece, easily among the most beautiful films ever made. Langlois’s relationship with the film is well-known. During his stint as head of the Cinematheque Francaise, he famously attempted to restore the film using both the domestic theatrical print and footage found in different versions from around the world, a sort of atonement for what he considered his own inadequacy compared to Vigo’s artistry. Langlois once said the director “makes films as easily as breathing. He sees, he dreams, he thinks, he writes, he lives cinema. . . . If the cinema is an art of sleep, there’s only one man who holds the key to dreams, Jean Vigo.”
L’Atalante was released during France’s poetic realism era and is considered one of the key examples of the style. These films came about when the French film industry sat precariously on the WWII bubble, offering dispirited if outright cynical views of prewar French society, brooding protonoir visuals, and a general sense of foreboding—yet there’s something infinitely optimistic in their aesthetic ambition and commitment to art in the face of encroaching menace. Here are my five favorite films from the era.
5. Le Grand Jeu (dir. Jacques Feyder, 1934) One of the earliest films to express the sense of romantic despair that characterized much of poetic realism, and one of the most eccentric depictions of the French Foreign Legion in all of film. Not only does this early example of poetic realism set numerous precedents for the films to come, it also anticipates certain aspects of the American melodrama.
4. Port of Shadows (dir. Marcel Carné, 1938) Carné’s masterpiece, a quintessentially French film that drives home the notion that nothing in life is as important as passion. Of course, there’s a lot of American noir in here, too. Jean Gabin, at the peak of his fame and prowess, is all steel reserve and iron chin, the ideal conduit for the story’s sternly pessimistic tone.
3. The Lower Depths (dir. Jean Renoir, 1939) You could put any 30s Renoir film—Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Bête Humaine—in this space and be correct, so I went with one of his minor efforts if only to suggest that there’s no such thing as a “minor” Renoir film. It’s maybe the most hopeful and animated depiction of a decidedly dour milieu, a testament to Renoir’s uniquely humanist tendencies.
2. Pépé le Moko (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1937) Duvivier is no slouch, but the true draw here, of course, is Gabin. His towering performance represents nothing less than the beginning of an entire screen tradition—of Bogart, Belmondo, Delon, Mitchum, and everyone else in between. The dark heart of an even darker movie, he’s absolutely essential not only to this film but poetic realism as a whole.
1. L’Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934) As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, a majorly influential film that nobody else has come close to matching. Though fundamentally poetic realist, the film’s overall mood—jubilant, anarchic, chimeric—runs counter to the style as a whole. To watch the film is to catch a glimpse of a theoretical future of movies. Vigo left behind more than two dozen unrealized projects, and when you remember that L’Atalante was his finale, the prospect of what could have followed is both dizzying and heartbreaking.
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that L’Atalante was Jean Vigo’s final film.