If you haven’t seen “L’Atalante”, you can’t justifiably make the claim that you are a knowledgeable cineaste.
‘L’Atalante’ is such a lovely film from director, Jean Vigo, a man whose career would have been marvelous to behold had he not died so young. This was his last film and there are stories that he directed many of the scenes while deathly ill. This movie is a genuine masterpiece and is a must-see for anyone who truly loves the art of film. ‘L’Atalante’ is one of the pioneering gems of cinema.
It is a simple story about the first few days of marriage aboard a barge traveling the canals of France. Dita Parlo plays Juliette, a haunting beauty and a dreamer who longs for adventure and excitement. Her husband, Jean, is a realist who doesn’t mind the rugged life aboard his ship. She tries to domesticate her husband, showing him the wonders of laundry and neatness. He is so used to the bachelor life that he doesn’t even see the need to change the sheets when one of the many cats on board has kittens in their bed.
Juliette struggles with her new life and longs to visit Paris so she can explore and shop and dance and eat. She wants a more elegant and romantic life. Barge life gets more complicated due to the oafish first mate, Jules, who lurches around in a perpetual stupor and acts obnoxiously at the drop of a hat, all the while being rather charming and interesting.
When the barge finally reaches Paris, the couple plans a trip to shore. But the plan gets waylaid by Jules who isn’t around to guard the boat during their absence. After a confrontation, Juliette leaves to explore her Parisian dream without Jean. And when Jules finally returns, Jean decides to abandon his wife and sets a course down the river.
A plot summary doesn’t really do the film justice. Vigo employs gorgeously original camera angles and a poetic method of storytelling that makes this film impossible to forget. It has racy and subtle humor. It deals with sexuality unlike any other film of the era. It has a fantasy sequence whose power has rarely been rivaled, even in today’s special effects bonanza. ‘L’Atalante’ is way ahead of its time. Watching this film is like peering through a time portal to the beginning of modern filmmaking. ‘Citizen Kane’ is often cited as the most influential film ever made… but ‘L’Atalante’ was ‘Citizen Kane’ before ‘Citizen Kane’. It is no wonder that it still appears on many lists of the greatest of all time.
I find it amazing that the film, shot 70 years ago, in soft light and occasionally blurred focus, still manages to evoke truly powerful emotions and tangible sensations. Vigo’s shots are cold, foggy, cramped, dirty, awkward and hard. But he slips a few truly sublime poetic moments in there to lift our hearts. When Jean regrets his decision to abandon Juliette he jumps into the river. The underwater sequence is an ethereal and magical moment in cinema. Their resulting journeys back to one another is romantic and altogether truthful. The film encapsulates the awkward and difficult early days of marriage and the journey to the days beyond, where ‘real’ love starts to grow.