L'Atalante (1934)

Review #1,571

Director:  Jean Vigo
Cast:  Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon
Plot:  Newly married couple Juliette and a ship captain, Jean, struggle through marriage as they travel on the 'L'Atalante' along with the captain's first mate Le père Jules and a cabin boy.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  -
Runtime:  89 mins
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Source:  Gaumount

Much has been written about Jean Vigo and his short-lived career as a filmmaker.  He passed away at age 29 from tuberculosis, leaving behind three short films and one feature.  His third short, Zero for Conduct (1933), is one of the finest films about youth rebellion; similarly, L’Atalante is seldom excluded in any list of the top 100 (maybe even 50) movies of all-time.  

Made when Vigo was extremely ill, L’Atalante only achieved international prominence post-WWII when his works became more widely seen.  It was also one of the essential works of French poetic realism, a stylistic period where French filmmakers, in particular Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, sought to present social reality with moody fatalism.  But L’Atalante is surprisingly tender and comical, though it would be inaccurate to label it as a work of optimism. 

Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo star as newlywed couple Jean and Juliette.  Having never left her village before, she meekly embarks on a journey to a new life with her charismatic husband, who is the ship captain of 'L’Atalante'.  On board the ship are Le père Jules (Michel Simon in a scene-stealing role), the captain’s world-weary first mate, and a much younger cabin boy.  

One could draw parallels to how the couple navigate their relationship as the ship navigates the canals of France in search of Paris.  The playful sense of marital energy at the onset as the couple take in the feelings of carefree love eventually give way to jealously and frustration, with Vigo chronicling the obstacles and conflicts inherent in an evolving marriage with both comic clarity and emotional sensitivity.  

L’Atalante may be a straightforward film, bearing the narrative beats of a romance picture, but Vigo’s approach is refreshing insofar as how his work tries to conjure up a dreamy tone amid the unflattering realism of its setting.  He was able to depict the yearning for love in its most unadulterated form through the commingling of the metaphysical and the physical, expressed through techniques of superimposition and editing.  Two moments perfectly crystalise this: one involves an underwater scene, while the other involves the couple on two separate beds.  

Vigo was one of the very few filmmakers working at that time who could envision such a possibility for cinema.  One can only wonder how it would have been like if he made films till the 1960s or 1970s—for instance, would the French New Wave exist, and if so, would it have been birthed differently?

Verdict:  Vigo’s first and last feature, made at the height of French poetic realism, is tender, comical and refreshing.




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