FILM / Director's Cut: Treasure trove of the past: Michael Caton-Jones on the soundless scene he likes to steal from Jean Vigo's L'Atalante

There's stuff that I steal regularly. Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) has a scene which is extraordinary and soundlessly recreates the feeling of longing that people have. The sailor and his wife have split up; she's in Paris and he's on the boat, and he's thinking about her, and she's thinking about him. They're both lying in bed and Vigo dissolves between the two. As one turns, the other turns; it's as if they're in the same bed, as if they're the same person. It's really sensual.

If you take the progression from silent movies to sound movies at that time, you see that the better director held on to what he'd learnt before sound was invented. And the less good ones dropped their earlier style completely and went to stiff, stagey, dialogue-ridden films. In 1928 the visual form was immensely more fluid and complex than today.

At film school I didn't get much in the way of theory. But they had a huge library and, if you're a buff like I am, you just chase these things up. It was like discovering Tamla Motown, all at once. You find all this stuff that you just pillage. It's a fascinating, rich area, silent movies. Everything we do now was done better before 1928.

I don't want to be too buffy about it, because it really is my passion. The interesting thing is that it's only other directors who understand directors. I've been meeting a few of them out here in Los Angeles, and you find out that everybody does the same thing in different ways whether they're Tarkovsky or whether they're making some splatter movie. It's like being a lover: you never get to know how good the other guys are. Then when you talk you realise you're doing identical things.

Michael Caton-Jones is the director of Scandal, Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood and This Boy's Life. L'Atalante is released on video by Artificial Eye ( pounds 15.99).

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