L’ATALANTE (1934)

  • Director: Jean Vigo
  • Writers: Jean Vigo and Albert Riera, based on “an original scenario” by Jean Guinée
  • Starring: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, and Gilles Margaritis
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#12), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#5)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video

I have been witness to some online discussions lately about what sorts of movies people like, what’s part of the “canon,” and why. The good news is that, if you are someone who loves superhero movies, they are still there for you to enjoy even if Martin Scorsese says he doesn’t think they’re any good, just as you are fully entitled to go watch silent movies if that’s your thing even though probably a majority of people, if polled, would say that they are not into them. One point of this discussion is that a large portion of the movies we now consider to be part of the realm of “classics” were, as one tweet I saw put it, “basically decided by like five French dudes in 1962.” And, for a variety of reasons of timing and history, that is pretty much the case. So now we’re in this situation where I will one hundred percent back you if you want to argue that the films of Lois Weber, Ida Lupino, or Oscar Michaux should be studied today, even if we disagree on that point with Jean-Luc Godard, but at the same time the inflection point in film history that mid-century France represents can’t just be ignored. And honestly, I’ve mostly enjoyed the films I’ve watched for this site that were entirely on my radar because they were championed by those five(ish) French dudes. Like, say, L’Atalante.

This film has persisted as an important part of the international canon even today, for the very basic reason that it’s still considered a very good movie. Yet it exists almost outside of film history. L’Atalante turned out to be the only full-length feature film to be completed by the director Jean Vigo, who died less than a month after the movie’s release. A preview screening for distributors met with derision, the film’s backers cut it all the way down to 65 minutes long, and the movie almost entirely failed to make an impact at the time of its release in 1934. In fact, L’Atalante feels very much like a much more modern film, especially in terms of its grounded subject matter and performances. It might as well be a member of the “French New Wave,” a film movement that wouldn’t get moving for more than two decades after Vigo’s death. L’Atalante is now considered by some critics to be the “greatest,” if not the best, European film of all time. In his native country, where Vigo had trouble getting anyone to give him financing in his lifetime, the Prix Jean Vigo is now awarded annually to an outstanding French film director.

L’Atalante begins with a wedding in a country village, between the beautiful Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of a canal barge (L’Atalante is the name of the barge). She immediately moves onto the boat with him, resulting in friction with the crew, who aren’t used to women, especially the scruffy weirdo “Pére Jules” (Michel Simon). There are more cats than people on the barge, and when one of them has kittens in the married couple’s bed, Jean thinks Juliette is being overly fussy when she wants to wash the sheets. She soon discovers that he has a closet that is completely filled with a year’s worth of dirty laundry, and we see her thinking that she may have, to quote Arrested Development, “made a huge mistake.”

What I think a lot of people really remember from the film are the romantic, almost swooning latter stages of the film. Small-town girl Juliette dreams of the Paris nightlife, but Jean is tired from working and not really interested in going out. When the barge happens to pass through Paris, she finds that Pére Jules has already left and Jean says he now has to stay because somebody always has to be with the barge. So she sneaks off, and when Jules gets back Jean angrily casts off and leaves her there. However, to quote Anchorman, he “immediately regrets this decision,” and slips into a deep depression. Recalling a folk tale Juliette told him that when one opens one’s eyes underwater one will see their true love, Jean sticks his head in a bucket in an attempt to see Juliette again. When this fails, he jumps into the river, where he (and the audience) see a ghostly image of Juliette, floating in the water. He then wanders off from the boat and sadly embraces a block of ice sitting in the port, as if it is his love. But in the end Jules goes looking for Juliette and miraculously finds her listening to a phonograph record in a store. She returns, the lovers embrace, and all is happily ever after.

I think there may be an argument that L’Atalante is one of the earliest and best portrayals of real human relationships on film. Over the gap of almost a century, I honestly did recognize many aspects of my own life in this movie. Just as Jean and Juliette end up getting married and moving in together without necessarily knowing everything about each other first, the first time I met my now-wife in person (we had an online courtship) was when I arrived at the airport to move in with them. I recognized myself in their awkwardness. Jean and Juliette deeply love each other, but they still get mad over dumb stuff, and when the get mad they do really stupid things. I feel like we’ve all been there. As for whether, had my wife been moving in with me rather than the other way around, they would have found any closets filled with a year’s worth of laundry, I will take the fifth. I often comment here that I love old movies for giving us a window into the past, but they can also give us a window into what aspects of the human experience really are universal.

One of my opinions I tend to tell anyone about who will listen is that this sort of universality actually, counterintuitively, comes from specificity. Take Jules, who is a gruff, gross veteran sailor (he has lots of tattoos, which in 1934 is code for him being considered a lowlife) who on the one hand is one of those very memorable, unique movie creations, and on the other hand, don’t we all know a Jules somehow? At one point, rooting around in the cabinets, Juliette finds a pair of human hands in a jar. She keeps her perturbation mostly under wraps, and Jules explains that they’re from an old friend of his. “All that is left of him,” he mentions sadly.

Vigo died at the incredibly young age of 29, and is today something of the Kurt Cobain or the John Keats of classic cinema. Who knows where his career might have gone had he lived. In some sense, it has always seemed like it was, in fact, L’Atalante that killed him. He already suffered from tuberculosis when filming began, and then insisted on filming long hours on the actual canals of northern France in winter, rather than in a studio as pretty much all of his contemporaries would have done. Despite sometimes having to direct from a stretcher, he refused to take a break, telling one friend who so advised that he “lacked the time and had to give everything right away.” In the end, Vigo’s entire cinematic output (which also includes the seminal 40-minute film Zero por Conduite, set in a school) is less than the full length of the recent Dune movie, and can (and sometimes is) be shown in one go at a movie theater, but his name is still known today.

L’Atalante’s basic earthiness and emotional honesty are fairly normal aspects of an independent film today, though few capture these things quite as well. At the time of its release, they likely felt shocking. Even decades later, one critic told Francois Truffaut he didn’t like the film because it “smelled like dirty feet.” It’s pretty clear that was one of the things Truffaut, and many members of the audience even today, like about it.

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