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September 26, 1991 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 1991-09-26

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ARTS
Thursday, September 26, 1991

The Michigan Daily/
Vigo and the
skipper too)
A grim, bizarre romance breaks
ground for the French new wave

Page 5

It's never tea for
two in DuetforOne

I

Duet for One
Ann Arbor Civic Theater
September 19, 1991

L'Atalante
dir. Jean Vigo
by Rosanne Freed
hen a young genius dies, it's
tempting to oversentimentalize a
tragically abbreviated career. Sure,
James Dean was a dandy actor in
Giant and Rebel Without a Cause,
but so was Dennis Hopper in his
twenties. And before Buddy Holly
snowballed into an Iowa cornfield,
his syrupy'string arrangements were
already signaling the shift from
"Peggy Sue" to show tunes.
But iconoclastic. French film di-
rector Jean Vigo was a corpse of a
different color. When he died in
1934 at age 29, he left a small- body.
of cinematic work so original and
full of artistic promise that critic
James Agee once declared, "It was
as if he had invented the wheel."
Vigo's first (and only) feature-
length effort was L'Atalante, a
supremely weird yet familiar movie
that feels like an episode of The-
Love Boat directed by Jean-Luc
Godard. L'Atalante was the culmi-
nation of Vigo's earlier experi-
ments with metaphorical and surre-
alistic uses of film. He applied his
experience to a simple romantic
comedy assigned to him by the mo-
vie studio. This apparent constraint
was.Vigo's saving grace, showcasing
his ability both to infuse mundane
reality with poetry and to find the
lyrical beauty of characters rooted
in the gritty natural world.
The film begins with newlyweds
Juliette (Dito Parlo) and Jean (Jean
Dastd) leading a post-wedding pro-
cession of relatives and townspeo-
ple from the local church to their'
new home, Jean's river barge, which-
is named L'Atalante. Typical of
Vigo's radical approach, we never
see the wedding itself, but only its
strangely somber aftermath. This
gloomy convoy is intercut with the
comic efforts of the ship's mate,

Pere Jules (Michel Simon), and a
young cabin boy (Louis Lefevre), as
they prepare the boat for the arrival
of their skipper and his bride.
Once aboard, the monotony of
Juliette's life on the river - cook-
ing and cleaning for three merchant
sailors - leaves her itchy to jump
ship and experience the high life on
dry land. Eventually she scratches.
Her escape to Paris throws Jean into
a lovesick delirium. Juliette fares no
better, encountering crime, poverty
and loneliness in the big city. Un-
able to tolerate Jean's miserable
moping, Pere Jules tracks down Ju-
liette and returns her to the barge,
where she and Jean happily reunite.
Vigo transforms the prosaic
"boy gets/loses/gets girl" narrative
into a transcendent vision of the ev-
eryday world that's greater than the
sum of its parts. Instead of choosing
between realism, fantasy, natural-
ism and expressionism, Vigo stacks
them all together in a stylistic layer.
cake. A shot of Juliette in her
shimmering satin wedding dress as
she crosses the grimy, drab barge
from bow to stern merges the beau-
tiful and the grotesque, symbolism
and realism, in a quintessential ex-
ample of Vigo's unique style.
This imaginative way of seeing
the commonplace also extends to

Lately, spare sets and few
players have characterized the lo-
cal drama scene. With less spot-
light to go around, a play's suc-
cess may hinge upon the perfor-
mance of only one or two people,
creating a tremendous amount of
pressure for the actors involved.
Nonetheless, these difficult pro-
ductions have been popping up ev-
erywhere. At the Performance
Network, recent small-cast pro-
ductions included Beckett's Hap-
py Days and adaptations of the
lives of Oscar Wilde and Walt
Whitman - all plays that hinged
on the efforts of one actor.
Featuring only two players,
Ann Arbor Civic Theater's pro-
duction of Tom Kempinski's Duet
for One continues the cycle of
these bare bones productions. All
of the action takes place in six
counseling sessions in the office
of Dr. Feldman (Peter Bellanca), a
psychiatrist whose role is little
more than that of tour guide, tak-
ing us on a walk through the
troubled mind of Stephanie (Wen-
dy Susan Hiller).
Duet for One also features the
added pressure of a very deep
script. From Stephanie's nearly
hysterical exclamations of "Blo-
ody well shut up!" to her
despairingly calm admission that
she's having an affair, all of her
statements are completely realis-
tic. Kempinski is obviously fa-
miliar with psychology, as well
as with the mechanics of the
counselor-counselee relationship.
All of these factors add up to a
play that is extremely difficult
to produce well. Even when it's
good, one wonders if it could have

been better. Hiller's burden - to
plumb the depths of Kempinski's
text almost singlehandedly - is
an awesome one, and she carries
much of it well. Stephanie's hap-
pier, more nostalgic moments are
her best.
During one of the play's most
memorable moments, Stephanie
de-scribes how she met her hus-
band; in another scene, her de-
scription of the couple's violin
duet and the extended metaphor
with which she describes their
lovemaking - "heavy chords and
plenty of changes" - exuded an
amazingly genuine joy of life.
Similarly, Stephanie's other posi-
tive reminisces are excellent. Her
memories of winning awards as
the "youngest player ever" show
a rare and irresistible vitality.
But despite her talent, the huge
demands of the production made
for some inconsistencies on Hil-
ler's part. The play called for
drastic changes in mood - from
the happy nostalgic, Hiller was
often expected to abruptly be-
come harried and agitated. Most
of the time, she accomplished this
switch very well; at the begin-
ning of the fourth scene, for ex-
ample, Hiller actually looked de-
bilitated, physically paler. She
changed into an open-necked swea-
ter that displayed her tensed neck
muscles, as well as part of her bra,
matching her mood with a harried
and agitated appearance. And Ste-
phanie's, envy of her husband,
along with a hysterical insistence
on being a performer, "not a fuck-
ing teacher," also worked well.
Nonetheless, Hiller's earlier
scenes, when she was on the defen-
sive, were her weakest. Her more
controlled denials, and her rejec-
tions of Dr. Feldman, were often
See DUET, Page 8

Jean Vigo directs Dita Parlo and Jean Dant in L'Ata/ante. Please ignore
the resemblance to Eraserhead, John Turturro in Barton Fink and the
subway guy in Ghost. This one's an original.

U4

inhabit every conceivable shipboard
niche. The effect is both funny and
disconcerting - there's a sublimi-
nal dreaminess to the whole film, as
if we're watching it projected in
that mental multiplex wedged be-
tween sleep and consciousness.
But L'Atalante is more than a

Vigo transforms the prosaic ."boy
gets/loses/gets girl" narrative into a
transcendent vision of the everyday world
that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Instead of choosing between realism,
fantasy, naturalism and expressionism, Vigo
stacks them all together in a stylistic layer
cake

imposed over a sleepless Juliette,
tossing fitfully in her Paris flat. (Is
this moviedom's first version of
safe sex?) Simon - the Walter
Matthau of French cinema - goes
hilariously over the top as the gruff
and worldly Pere Jules. Witnessing
Juliette's sad alienation on the ship,
he attempts to entertain her with a
crude yet tender burlesque of his
primitive tattoos.
Making the sweet, subversive
L'Atalante, Vigo quite literally
gave it his all: he died of lung dis-
ease just a few weeks after the
film's Paris premiere. Although the
film was horribly recut by the stu-
dio and shown only sporadically, its
influence can be seen in the work of
the French New Wave (especially
Francois Truffaut), Renoir, Fellini
and Polanski. But Vigo's ultimate
claim to fame is his own poetic mas-
tery of cinema's magic possibilities.
L'ATALANTE runs tonight through
Sunday at the Michigan Theater.

k

t

I .14

Vigo's technical work. He places
the camera at odd angles and the
characters in surprising arrange-
ments, filling the frame with star-
tling details, like the bizarre
seafaring trinkets in Pere Jules'
cabin or the litter of kittens which

grab bag of avant-garde tricks. Like
any mainstream movie, its artistry
works in seryice to the emotional
expressions of the characters. You'd
be hard pressed to find a more erotic
scene than the one in which ,a rest-
less Jean, alone in his bed, is super-

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