Director: Jean Vigo
France, the 1930s. Jean, the captain of the trading vessel, L’Atalante, marries a young provincial woman named Juliette. It is the first time she has left her village. Instead of a honeymoon, Jean takes Juliette with him, and his crew, including the eccentric Jules, on a trading trip on the river Seine, from Le Havre to Paris. Juliette immediately tries to bring a sense of domesticity to the chaotic boat and yearns for their arrival in Paris to see the bright lights of the big city.
Although their marriage starts romantically, tensions brews. First Jean makes Juliette switch off the radio that broadcasts news from Paris. When Juliette is in Jules’ quarters, looking at his collection of objects and trinkets, Jean flies into a rage, smashing plates. Jean and Juliette are supposed to go for a night out when they reach Paris but this is prevented when Jules visits a fortune teller and gets drunk. When they finally go out, Juliette is charmed by a handsome and amusing magician, which makes Jean even more jealous. When Juliette goes out one night and doesn’t return, Jean leaves without her despite Jules’ insistence that they wait. Juliette becomes lonely and is robbed. Jean becomes depressed at having lost his wife. Jules searches for Juliette and eventually finds her. Jean and Juliette are reunited.
‘L’Atalante’ is the only full length feature by the acclaimed French director, Jean Vigo, who died of complications from tuberculosis just after the film’s completion, at the age of just 29. Aware of his own illness and the strain the film was having on his health, Vigo ensured that ‘L’Atalante’ was a true demonstration of his copious talents, an early example of poetic realism that would influence not only his contemporaries such as Renoir and Carné but also the subsequent generation of French film makers, the Nouvelle Vague. The original print distributed to French cinemas was butchered to provide a more populist film. Fortunately, it’s been restored to as an accurate a representation of Vigo’s vision as possible and is surely all the better for it and it’s difficult to imagine what was found so worrying about the original cut.
One of the most charming aspects of ‘L’Atalante’ is that it’s a deceptively simple tale, one of love that’s lost and found, but is expressed in a visually thrilling fashion and carries a real emotional punch to it. Vigo’s narrative is nothing if not economic. We start with a wedding; one we don’t even see. All Vigo depicts are Jules and a fellow crewman fooling around outside the ceremony, and then the proud Jean and Juliette emerging from the church. There’s no hint about their courtship; how they met, how Jean proposed or what took place in the wedding. Furthermore, there’s no post-wedding celebration or honeymoon – Juliette is expected to attempt to adapt to life on the Seine. It’s this difference between her need for domesticity and Jean’s reluctance to change his way of life that threatens to unsettle the relationship – he doesn’t understand her need to frequently change bedsheets despite Jules’ cats running amok.
Juliette is a naive, inexperienced girl who’s never left her village and perhaps its her adventurous spirit that finds married life with Jean so fascinating. It’s something different to her provincial upbringing, though this soon pales when the lure of the big city takes her attention. Vigo presents a couple who are in love but are completely different, which makes one wonder how they got together, but it’s the different expectations and yearnings, as well as the claustrophobic conditions that aren’t used to a female presence that make every trivial incident more overblown and eventually part the married couple. If they’re a couple who can’t leave with each other, then they’re also a couple who can’t live without each other – their reunification, instigated by Jules, who knows plenty about love, never feels trite, but the mutual realisation of the couple of what they truly want. The couple just spend a long time trying to work out what it is they want.
Vigo was a film maker who’d worked in both silent and sound cinema, but the influence of silent cinema is evident in ‘L’Atalante’, which is to be expected perhaps since sound cinema was still in its infancy. Dialogue exists purely when necessary and there’s several scenes that pass with none. The influence of expressionist cinema is found in the ominous post-marriage trip along the Seine when watching the banks reveals dark, foreboding skies and passers by. Vigo’s technical imagination is revealed in numerous scenes; when Jules appears to wrestle himself, when Juliette is first lifted onto the vessel, the use of underwater photography when Jules dives into the Seine and in the staggering depiction of restlessness and longing, as Vigo cuts between the separated couple undressing and then he observes them toss and turn in their respective beds, yearning for the other; their anguished faces morphing onto each others.
There’s fluid camera movement, most notably when Juliette walks along the boat, with an extended tracking shot following her movement. Boris Kaufman, the director of photography (the brother of Dziga Vertov of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ fame) had worked on all Vigo’s previous works and eventually had a long and successful career in Hollywood, working on films with Elia Kazan on films such as ‘On The Waterfront’. Kaufman uses his extensive talents to express Vigo’s vision of a film that’s superficially simple but brimming with radical ideas and techniques. What’s so intriguing is how such an inexperienced director had the confidence to create a film that was visually different to anything that had preceded it. Perhaps an increasingly ill Vigo saw ‘L’Atalante’ as the sole opportunity to set his name in stone, and he certainly achieves it with some style.
‘L’Atalante’ frequently finds itself in regular lists of the greatest films of all time and justifiably so. For all the seriousness of the separation, there’s a light touch at work. Humour is always present whenever Jules appears on screen; the great French actor Michel Simon is a perfect foil for the married couple, an eccentric ball of energy whose wisdom reunites the people he loves. It’s a lyrical, rhythmical film, much like Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’, it’s less a film than a cinematic poem about two people in love, which celebrates both love and life, and every frame of this film is more or less perfect.