Rowing Across the Atlantic

13 August 2019

By Hélène Rémond

Hélène Rémond watches Rowing Across the Atlantic (1978), a short animated film by Jean-François Laguionie, which was celebrated at a film festival in La Rochelle, France.

The 47th edition of the International Film Festival of La Rochelle took place from 28 June to 7 July. It screened retrospectives devoted to Arthur Penn, Victor Sjöström, Charles Boyer and Kira Mouratova and celebrated comedy with Jim Carrey and Louis de Funès. It also paid tribute to many directors such as French animation leading figure Jean-François Laguionie, who has made shorts as well as many features for decades.

Jean-François Laguionie

Among the works presented was a short animation film entitled La Traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame (“Rowing Across the Atlantic”) released in 1978. Jean-François Laguionie won the Grand Prize at the Ottawa International Animation Festival the same year. He was also awarded the Palme d’Or for this film at the Cannes Film Festival and won the César Award for best short animated film, both in 1978.

The story is told through the pages of the diary found in a wrecked boat on a deserted coast. It’s about a couple, Adelaïde and Jonathan, who leave their home in New York City in 1907. They spend the rest of their lives in the boat, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. They are even observers of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The viewer witnesses their joys, their ordeals and their conflicts, more so as living in a reduced space is not that easy. The film shows the boat trip as a metaphor of love and life. We may refer to the figurative sense of the French verb “ramer” (“to row”), which means “to struggle” or “to have a lot of hassle”. After the enthusiastic departure, the atmosphere is getting gloomy. The protagonists experience boredom, madness and violence at different milestones of the trip. Beyond the exceptional feat of rowing across the Atlantic, they struggle to stay united in the face of adversity. And when they row on their own side after a quarrel, the boat won’t go further until a new weather period unfolds. As the couple gets old, they stop rowing and let themselves go.

The cut-paper imagery is in harmony with the feelings the travelers share. As time passes, the film conveys a surrealistic atmosphere. In the end, it echoes the possible dream one can reach by paying attention to what surrounds us.

In an interview given to high-school students on TV Tregor, Jean-François Laguionie said at least 2/3 of his films are linked to the sea. The sea expresses “a certain dimension, strength and poetry that I need.” He also confided to an Annecy audience, in 2010, that “the sea contributes to the trip, in which you’re not the master of the game.”

Rowing Across the Atlantic:

In Ottawa, Jean-François Laguionie reflected on making the film, which was part of the 40th Anniversary Special Screening Programme of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, in September 2016. He explained:

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 that 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 was basically screened everywhere. In re-watching it, I had the impression I had received a great freedom! On the duration, its pace, and especially 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 that I was wrong… I could touch the audience with simple methods, provided they are sincere. It made me more confident later on… in truth, a qualified confidence! I still have a little stage fright!

La Traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame, directed by Jean-François Laguionie and written by Jean-Paul Gaspari and Jean-François Laguionie, voices by Charlotte Maury-Sentier and Jean-Pierre Sentier, 1978, 21 min, music by Pierre Alrand.

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