L’Atalante is simply one of the most poetically beautiful films there is. It’s a love story of desire and longing and the foolish impediments that lovers put in their own paths, and it is imbued with the same wonderfully and specifically French feel as the films by Gance and Renoir, with a similar mastery of the magical powers of cinema to communicate in what seems like pure emotion. The film’s aura is only enhanced by the fact that it was the sole feature by Jean Vigo, suffering from TB and dying tragically at age 29 weeks after the end of shooting (he didn’t make the final cut).
The title is the name of a barge, skippered by Jean (Jean Dasté), with an odd, bearish first mate, père Jules (Michel Simon). The film tells the simple tale of Jean’s honeymoon with wife Juliette (Dita Parlo) on the rivers up to the coast. She finds life on the barge uncomfortable and is lured by the attractions of the shore and the bright lights of the city; he is often unaware of her dissatisfaction, or reacts with a short temper in impotent incomprehension; yet at other times they while away hours of such happiness as only fresh love knows.
The reasons the film is so wonderful are several: the story flows as serenely as the river, whilst Vigo raises the everyday tale of everyday folk to repeated emotional heights. A strong motif is that of the lovers’ losing one another, as they do on the first night on the barge, in the fog, prompting an exhilarating reunion; later, Juliette teaches Jean a neat trick (which he cannot perform) for seeing one’s true love by ducking one’s head under water; and a night apart turns into a delirious visual sequence as the lovers toss and turn in separate beds, miles apart, but are brought (rather erotically) together by the strength of their desires and by the magic tricks of film-making.
And there are plenty of magical tricks of film-making, from deftness of editing and luminous cinematography to double exposures and fun with the diegetic soundtrack. But the predominant performer of tricks onscreen is the eccentric père Jules, with his incomprehensible gabble and his tendency to do unexpected or outrageous things, such as larking about in a skirt, Greco-Roman wrestling with himself or suddenly getting his hair cut by the dog-clipper. He stands in striking counterpoint to stolid Jean and petulant Juliette as a source of unfettered emotion and good humour (most of the time; he’s very amusing when he’s grumpy). Jules’ cabin is the repository of most of his magic tricks, a wonderland of relics from his travels (it is also full of cats, which is always a good thing) and the wonders extend to the fantastic patchwork of sailor tattoos that covers his body; Juliette is spellbound in equal parts horror and fascination. It’s only natural that this free-spirited id figure should be instrumental in reuniting the lovers; each hurt and angry, then lost and desperate, they let petty all-too human failings get in the way of the fulfillment of the heart’s desire, before such a transportative sequence of lovesick reverie that one can willingly believe that the happy ending will last forever (Leos Carax did, using an old couple on a barge called L’Atalante to pick up his own Lovers of the Pont Neuf).
In addition to the bits of wonderful camera trickery, the actual visual texture is just gorgeous. It was variously shot by one Louis Berger, Jean-Paul Alphen (La Règle du jeu) and, predominantly, by the Russian Boris Kaufman (of Man With A Movie Camera fame, something of a visual poet himself). The film is full of radically striking sequences and shots, from the newlyweds’ long procession to the barge through increasingly abstracted landscapes at the start, via the strange looming images of the passing shore that prefigure Night of the Hunter, to the final, striking overhead shot; poetic realism was a specialty of French cinema from Abel Gance onwards, and many of the wordless sequences hark back to the purely visual beauty achieved in the final years of the silent era. But the soundtrack plays its part too, from Maurice Jaubert’s jaunty (and catchy!) theme song and score, to the points where soundtrack and diegetic sound merge (most amusingly in Jules’ cabin, most movingly at Juliette’s lowest point, lost in the city). Vigo also made a great 45-minute film about riotous school kids (Zéro de counduite), a strange little short about a champion swimmer, and an avant-garde documentary (A propos de nice). It is in the glorious, yearning vision of L’Atalante, however, marshaling all the elements at the command of the film-maker of the mid-30s whilst managing to appear both fantastically modern and older than film itself, that Vigo proves himself indeed to be a tragically lost, one-off poet of the cinema.