Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jean Vigo’s Poetic Vision: L’Atalante

Consult countless lists of the greatest films of all time and you will find this 1934 French classic. Considered to be director Jean Vigo’s masterpiece, L’Atalante is a surrealist love story for the ages. It is also a testament to Vigo’s artistic passion—he was deathly ill as he made it, often directing from a stretcher. He died shortly after filming was completed and could not edit the film himself. Instead, the editing task fell to some overenthusiastic Gaumont editors who cut the film from 89 to 65 minutes; somewhat damaging the film’s overall artistic composition. Thankfully, it was restored in 1990 and now truly resembles Vigo’s vision.

atalanteThe beginning of the film finds handsome barge captain Jean (Jean Daste) marrying his proper girlfriend Juliette (Dita Parlo). Whoever said the honeymoon can’t last forever must have been thinking of poor Juliette, because she doesn’t get one. Instead, she and her new husband immediately board their humble floating abode, the L’Atalante, where they also share quarters with the rough Jules (Michel Simon) and his assortment of cats, as well as a cabin boy. Basically, this is a story about a simple man who wants simple things and a fanciful young woman who dreams of seeing Paris.  The story takes a dramatic turn when the barge docks in Paris and Juliette goes ashore without telling her husband. When he finds her gone he doesn’t wait for her return; instead, he angrily take the L’Atalante out of port—leaving his provincial wife to fend for herself in the big city.

There are many things to enjoy about this film. Using his signature style of poetic realism, Vigo captures both the sensual, tender relationship between Jean and Juliette in an almost ethereal sense, as well as capturing the grunginess of a cramped barge and the squalor of Depression-era L-Atalante-006Paris in a direct, unflinching manner. The love that the couple share is Vigo’s conception of beauty, while most of the outside world represents his vision of all that is crude. When they are together on the barge, even when they are fighting about soiled sheets and unkempt, crude Jules, they are truly happy. It is only when they are both physically and emotionally separated that the couple truly feels anguish and pain.

The most striking sequence in the film comes about due to this separation. Remembering that Juliette had once told him that she had opened her eyes lat1under water to find her true love and had seen his face before she had ever met him, Jean jumps into freezing water and finds a smiling Juliette below the surface. When he returns to the boat he holds tight to a block of ice as if it were Juliette. It is a touching, spectacular scene to watch.  This is one of many great images that cinematographer Boris Kaufman captures. Truly, the film is a visual marvel, especially for 1934.

While both Parlo and Daste are more than memorable in this film, the one standout performer is Michel Simon as Jules. A master crafter of character, Simon always makes you believe he is his character. Still a relatively young man when he took on this role, Simon embodies the image of a sea-worn, old sailor who has seen and done everything.  In addition, atalante-1934-11-ghis strange relationship with Juliette is something to behold. He is at once crass and lecherous, and in the next moment sweet and thoughtful. Capturing Jules’ dual nature, Vigo created a spectacular image of Simon, through the use of dissolved exposures, when Jules wrestles himself on deck, which comes across as two ghosts fighting over his body.

Francois Truffaut wrote that this was one of the films that shaped his own cinematic vision. It is easy to see why. Loaded with breathtaking images, as well as a tender love story, L’Atalante is a truly entertaining film.


  1. It's at #16 on the list I work off of so you aren't kidding about it's reputation. I have to watch it again. It's been three and a half years and I still don't understand the appeal.

  2. I want to know what happened after Jean left Juliette in Paris by herself. In other words, Kim, you have made me want to see this movie. What a sad ending for Vigo, just finishing the film and dying. Although Vigo wasn't alive to see it, his movie suffered the same fate as Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, being cut up by someone else who didn't have his vision. It's great that Vigo's film was able to be restored. I have to see this one!

  3. Kim, I have not seen L’ATALANTE, which sounds fascinating, both thematically and visually. I love the photo from when Jean is underwater. This is definitely a film I need to add to my must-see list. Thanks for a compelling, interest-inducing, well-written review!

  4. Solid coverage, Kim. Your review is superbly written and undeniably intriguing, and a great way to end the Foreign Film Festival at the Cafe!

  5. Kim, I have not seen many (if any) Foreign Films. But, I have enjoyed reading everyones very, interesting Foreign Film reviews.

  6. I'm glad everyone enjoyed reading this, as well as our other foreign film reviews. Dawn is not alone out there--there are many who are unfamiliar with world cinema. I'm glad I had the opportunity to contribute to November's theme, and educate our readers about some classic foreign films. In addition, I hope to write even more reviews in this area in the coming months.

  7. Kim, I have thoroughly enjoyed your foreign film reviews. The reference and photo of the scene where the husband sees his wife underwater (as she had once seen him prior to their meeting) is fascinating. I love when a film utlizes images so provocatively. As Becky noted, I also want to know what happened to Juliette after Jean abandoned her. Another excellent article and awesome job, Kim!