La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la rame (Rowing across the Atlantic)
La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la rame (Rowing across the Atlantic)

Director: Jean Francois Laguionie (France)
1978 Grand Prize Winner


"At the time I lived in the south of France in a small isolated house with a beautiful garden and a happy, coupled life - in other words, bliss. I don't know what took me - maybe a sense of anxiety, a slightly perverse feeling. I imagined this solitude could put us in danger...and I wrote this story. I believe that it helped us. After the film it was, frankly, paradise!

Of course I don't like to watch my films, but it happened to me with this one that it was basically screened everywhere. In rewatching it, I had the impression that I had received a great freedom. For the duration, its pace, its theme, (I was my own producer...), a freedom that is always lost a little in working on features...But that I think I regained with my last film Louise en Hiver!

I remember being very surprised! Actually I found the film to be too slow and too clunky for the North American public...then a sense of great joy in discovering I was wrong - I could touch the audience with simple methods, provided that they are sincere. It made me more confident later truth, a qualified confidence! I still have a little stage fright..."

Ottawa 78 : La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame :
A Story in Painting
Essay by Olivier Cotte

For a long time, short and medium length animated films d’auteur were made mostly by animators rather than by directors. Like today, these artists took some pleasure in animating commissioned films that acted as a meal ticket, but when they decided to spend a few years making a personal short film, it was mostly for the chance to free their own sensibility. They took pleasure in creating pure movement for itself, exploring their personal visual sensibility particularly through the use of long shots that showcased the photographic qualities of their art. These aesthetic choices and artistic desires mostly left the writing a step behind. Remember that for many directors of this period, plot was linked to commercial/popular film, and was considered an unforgivable weakness. Many films from the 1970s looked like a demo-reel or a technical tour de force at the expense of cinematography and/or narration.

This way of directing contributed for a long time to marginalizing the auteur film, but fortunately it wasn’t global. In Russia (at the time the USSR), directors were truly involved in storytelling – something that was largely encouraged by the government anyway; in Italy, Gianini & Luzzati were dedicated to Opera librettos; Van Dijk’s politicized cinema developed content; Godfrey displayed his sharp humor through neat situations; within her initial tales, Alison de Vere relied on both ordinary and powerful characters.

Before becoming the director we know now, Jean-François Laguionie was a theater-lover. Knowing this, we can guess why he uses story as the main element of his films, and why he focuses on the characters rather than only the visual dimension. Laguionie’s first contact with animation came with the support of his mentor and model Paul Grimault, whose career, linked to the career of Jacques Prévert, was built on well-structured stories told through strong characters. These two determining influences explain why Laguionie has chosen to use story as the main base to build his films. It is this particular narrative focus that allowed him to successfully complete La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame, his longest film at the time at 24 minutes, and also led him to write his first feature film, Gwen, the Book of Sand.

La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame’s script, co-written with Jean-Paul Gaspari, was surprising in its time as it was particularly dense. It mixes the perspectives of the two protagonists - expressed through the reading of their diary - with an omniscient, external and more traditional point of view. There is a lot of storytelling potential: the journey that the two characters start in their skiff is none other than the one expressed in the title. Nevertheless, the challenge of narrating their journey is risky: despite the density of the story and its numerous possibilities of development, the audience has to follow nearly half an hour of a film starring only a couple – brave for sure, but nevertheless ordinary - living in a single boat on the ocean. This concept may appear to be unsuitable for cinema, particularly if we consider it’s developed though an animated medium which, by nature, stylizes, disguises reality, and reduces the intensity of drama - especially within action or suspense sequences. As the mise-en-scène and the visual possibilities are obviously restricted and repetitive, it’s not easy to make an audience remain focused and involved, even one that is interested in this epic story. To offer an extended dimension, Laguionie introduces a third character, the only one mentioned in the title: the ocean.

From his first short film, La demoiselle et le violoncelliste, to his beautiful feature L’île de Black Mór, the ocean has always fascinated Laguionie. The ocean is a universe that is meant to be explored. It reflects us to ourselves; this wonderful extended mirror, this water desert, encourages introspection. It’s the judge, the interlocutor, the enemy, the companion who carries us on his back and rocks us or makes us fall. It is not a simple studio set or background unlinked from the narration. On the contrary, the ocean is a central character who develops the drama through his moods. It also plays the role of the psychological catalyst and affects the narrative arc of the couple. The ocean serves the story a bit like a director: it is invisible enough to make room for the two actors. Within this journey, which will ultimately encapsulates an entire life - with its highlights and storms, both external and internal, its unlikely meetings (the Titanic drowning leading them to a necessary crime; the farandole in this strange castle inhabited by ghosts) - we actually follow the two main characters.

Although the screenwriting is admirable, the graphic dimension brought by Laguionie is not put on the back burner. Its qualities fill the screen through its falsely naive style, animated in phases with a cut-out technic that gives it flexibility. As the director is already a master of the style and technique used in his previous films, he can focus on his main aim: telling the story. Especially since the length of the film encourages the development of a long narrative thread.
This medium-length film was the front door to more ambitious ones. The care given to this story quickly led the director to create many feature films that betrayed neither the poetic dimension nor the philosophical ambition that was already his purpose. La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame is a coup de maître and, as we understand it, a bit on the fringes of its time. The film is clearly the work of a director more than that of an animator. It is the work of a real auteur, in which the existential philosophy marries poetry, the graphic aesthetic intensifies the mise en scène, and the stylistic originality, in a classic paradox, increases the universality of the story.  La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame is a masterful movie but let’s keep it quiet: its author is humble and certainly does not appreciate so much praise.

Olivier Cotte is a French film director, writer, graphic novel author, and animation historian.