French director Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis on the day that L’Atalante premiered in Paris in 1934. At only 29 years of age, he appeared to be on his way to a great career. Though he died too soon, it only took this film and Grand Illusion to make his mark in film history. But while this film may have influenced the French New Wave years later, L’Atalante was still quite unique when it was originally released.
- Director: Jean Vigo
- Writer: Jean Vigo, Albert Riera
- Cast: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Daste
Jean (Jean Dasté) marries a village girl named Juliette (Dita Parlo), and takes her along as he captains a barge that he uses to deliver cargo. Jean’s captain responsibilities take him to Paris, where he also plans to romance his new wife, but the presence of Jules (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy begin to create tension in their relationship, as Jean proves himself to be a jealous man. After some misadventures Jean decides to leave behind his new wife but soon finds himself regretting his decision.
The performances of Michel Simon and Dita Parlo are memorable, creating characters that appear to behave as one might expect. In some ways, the acting doesn’t feel like acting. But the natural feel of their performances is also attributable to Vigo’s experience as a director of early French avante garde documentaries. In fact, Vigo had already established an intimate familiarity with “kino eye” techniques. By the time L’ Atalante was produced, Vigo has also cemented a working relationship with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, the brother of documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov. The interesting thing about Vigo’s film is that at times it feels almost surreal but at other times it feels as though we’re watching a documentary about life on a barge.
L’Atalante is a valiant effort in creating something unconventional in the 1930′s. The non-sequential nature of the shots lends the film a sense of artistic style, but it also makes it difficult to understand. Some of this, however, can be blamed on the fact that L’Atalante does not exist in its original form. Much has been written about the hard struggle to restore the original and the fact that despite the best of efforts, we don’t have the version Vigo intended. And while such efforts make for interesting back story, that doesn’t eliminate the choppy nature of the editing and a plot that lags and sometimes doesn’t make sense.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
As a way to further justify his love of Vigo’s film, Ebert’s review points out that French director Francois Truffaut fell in love with L’Atalante one Saturday afternoon in 1946. However, I might suspect that Truffaut watched a version of this film that simply does not exist anymore. While I’m not entirely swayed the film itself, Ebert’s review is endearing to read, as it touches on aspects of the marriage on-screen that I perhaps did not fully appreciate. As he says, “the movie’s effect comes through the way it evokes specific moments in the life of the young couple, rather than tying them to a plot.” While I did not dislike this film, I came away from it not understanding its “greatness”. However, Vigo seems to have provided his material with enough heart, and his attempts to make a film that aspires to capture the essence of a young troubled marriage might be worth a second look.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like L’Atalante? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Jules and Jim
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante this week, he now has 325 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.