“Transatlantique” is Montreal-based documentary filmmaker Felix Dufour-Laperriere’s debut feature-length film, which follows the lives of workers traveling across the Atlantic on a cargo ship. Dufour-Laperriere’s film made its American debut at the 53rd Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Of course, the well-known mantra is “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” While not necessarily adventurous, “Transatlantique” is concerned only with the voyage. It eschews the facts of plot and the mechanisms of narrative, instead focusing on the experience of the crew members amid the wide expanse of the Atlantic. Neither the departing point nor the destination are made clear. Men talk, but there is no dialogue. There are no characters, only men. Every man remains anonymous, even when the film tracks the intimate details of their daily lives. Although the workers are presumably from India — they play cricket and seem to speak Hindi — this is never made explicit, like most of the detail in the film.
Indeed, Dufour-Laperriere’s film is a documentary in the most minimalist sense of the word. It documents the lives of the voyagers as lived without adornment, reveling in the banality of life at sea isolated from larger social interactions. There are large stretches that depict basic human activity: men eat, read, prepare for work in the morning, play board games, pray, etc. Dufour-Laperriere reduces the content of the film to the minute activity of these men, but avoids the trap of becoming tedious itself.
Much of the film oscillates between sequences of the ocean and those of human activity. This formula risks redundancy, but evades it. Many of the images of the sea are shot at different angles, and each is stunning. There are some scenes that seem to have been shot from beneath the water, which are particularly incredible.
In fact, “Transatlantique” is surprisingly enthralling and fascinating throughout its entirety, due in large part to its cinematography and score. Filmed in black and white, the cinematography catches the beauty of the sea along with its monotony and treachery. If based solely on visual criteria, “Transatlantique” is one of the most beautiful films one will ever see.
Dufour-Laperriere seems to be well versed in the European cinema of the 1960s, especially Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Aesthetically, “Transatlantique” compares well to a film such as Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” most notably in each work’s depiction of the sea. However, Dufour-Laperriere’s film has the advantage of being shot digitally, intensifying the clarity of the images and creating a more powerful cinematic effect. The contrast between white and black in the film is wondrously strange. The white is almost unbearable, and the black is total. At times the screen will shift from total darkness to intolerable luminescence with no warning.
The cinematography is accentuated by a powerful score that blends immaculately. The score is soft and, at times, nearly undetectable. But it fuses incredibly well with the stark images. The score captures the latent annihilation lurking beneath the glittering facade of the sea.