"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 on...in truth, a qualified confidence! I still have a little stage fright..."
78 : La traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame : A Story in Painting
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