L'Atalante | Spotlight | Indy Week

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Friday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
N.C. Museum of Art
Tickets: $5, $3.50 students


Material girls and boys may recall that Madonna adopted the moniker of Dita Parlo for her 1992 picture book Sex, and the title song on the accompanying Erotica album is sung in the voice of a character named Dita.

The real Dita Parlo was a Weimar-era screen charmer, born in Germany in 1908. With her flapper bob and irrepressible energy, Parlo was a hit in Germany but it was in France where she made the two films for which she is chiefly remembered. In Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion, Parlo was heartbreaking as a German war widow, but her most indelible role was that of Juliette, the innocent village girl of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante who marries a humble, humorless but otherwise worthy young barge captain (Jean Dasté).

L'Atalante is the most celebrated film by a director who ranks as the cinema world's most tragic early demise. Vigo died at 29 of tuberculosis shortly after completing L'Atalante, but ever since, his masterpiece has been a permanent resident of best-movies-of-all-time lists. In many ways, it is the quintessential French movie, whose influence can be see today in films such as Amélie.

Made in 1934, only a few decades removed from the world of Manet and Maupassant, the France we see in L'Atalante is buoyant and alive. From the village wedding that opens the film to the tragic-comic separation in Paris to the joyous reunion, L'Atalante is a symphony of silent film-derived physical comedy, folk music and riverside vistas. As the sweetly clownish first mate, Michel Simon provides a series of visual gags that anticipate the work of Jacques Tati.

At the center of it is the spritely Dita Parlo—playing a young lady desperate to see the world, even if it means traveling on a barge in a wedding dress. Parlo's performance (echoed in later years by the likes of Audreys Hepburn and Tautou) is innocent yet self-aware, and it tells us something about Madonna that she would identify with her.

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