Jean Vigo on the set of L'Atalante
France (89 mi) 1934 d: Jean Vigo
France (89 mi) 1934 d: Jean Vigo
Words can’t adequately describe this film, but it put a smile on my face and left it there all night the first time I saw it, simply an artistic masterpiece filled with the full spectrum of human flaws, yet, a flawless film filled with an indescribable joy and a boundless imagination that is incapable of being dull. L’Atalante was a bridge between the surrealism of 1920’s French cinema and the poetic realism of the 1930’s, one of the best uses of poetry and song, a bull’s-eye reflection of the human heart where the romantic lyricism evolves into something truly avant-garde. Vigo died at the age of 29, three weeks before the release of his final film, where his entire body of work consists of two documentary shorts, a 45-minute surrealistic treatise on childhood rebellion, and one magical feature film, all told in less than three hours of film time. Barely known while making films, overshadowed by his contemporaries Jean Renoir and René Clair, upon release the distributor cut about a third of the film, added a mediocre popular song, then retitled the film after the song, Le Chaland Qui Passe. The film was restored in 1940, but was largely a patchwork of the original with inaudible sound, restored again in 1990 by Pierre Philippe and Jean-Louis Bompoint, discovering a pristine nitrate print of the film prior to any cuts from the archives of the British Film Institute.
A simple story, written by an undistinguished writer named Jean Guinee, is really quite ordinary, but Vigo’s embellishments are so original, his improvisational twists and turns so unpredictable, as if the film is capturing human thought as it is being thought, shot by shot, moment by moment, recreating moments so incredibly fresh and alive, all captured in beautiful cinematography by Boris Kaufman, using Paris, the river Seine, and some fabulous riverbanks as a backdrop, adding a stunning musical score by Maurice Jaubert. Jean Dasté plays Jean, the captain of a river barge named L’Atalante, who marries Juliette, Dita Parlo, from one of the towns on his route, and they travel together in marital bliss down the river Seine, but Juliette turns restless and claustrophobic from the cramped quarters and turns to the ship’s mate, the real master of the ship, Pere Jules, played by Michel Simon, whose performance is one of the great marvels of the film. Something of an original Popeye, an old salty dog complete with a tattoo from every port, he provides endless stories and songs, while his own cabin is a museum of useless yet exotic marvels collected over the years, completely overrun by cats, but this charming and peculiar character becomes fascinating to Juliette, as if he represents the mystery of life itself. In a long, brilliantly sustained sequence, Pere Jules delightfully entertains Juliette with his collection of play things, exuding all his wondrous memories and his enthusiasm for living, what the French would call his Joie de vivre, interrupted by her jealous husband who finds it all so useless, wondering why she should be wasting her time in those dank and dirty quarters.
Juliette sneaks out at night to meet another marvelous character, the peddler (Gilles Margaritas), who is something of a flirtatious magical spirit, wooing her with the wonders of Paris, becoming a one-man band, meeting her at the barge, which is too much for her husband, so he decides to leave without her. But they are both miserable and alone without each other, where Jean remembers when Juliette told him you can see the face of the one you love under water, so he jumps off the barge into the river. In an epic underwater sequence, he has a vision of Juliette in her wedding dress, superimposing her image over Jean’s face, an ingenious way of conveying the two are thinking of one another at that exact same moment, which couldn’t be more sensual and erotic, creating highly surreal, yet intensely personalized film images of love and desire, that in a few seconds reveals exactly how they feel about one other. Using settings that are naturalistic and lower class characters, the film accentuates the use of the imagination, where mere objects, like puppets or fans or a phonograph, otherwise seen as a collection of junk, take on majestic heights, where the ordinary is elevated to the exotic. The dreamy visualization of the underwater sequence also emphasizes the extraordinary powers of using one’s imagination. Jean becomes so depressed, however, that Pere Jules is forced to find Juliette, searching for her on the streets, eventually discovering her alone in a music store listening to one of the couple’s favorite songs. When they finally reunite, this time knowing how much they mean to each other, the viewer is left speechless and in rapturous awe, filled with the exuberance of pure joy, becoming deliriously liberating and one of the most poetic and utterly unique film experiences imaginable.