World Cinema Masterpiece: L'Atalante
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema
Much has been written and spoken about this film in the many decades since Jean Vigo’s short but fruitful career came to an abrupt end. A French director who’s complete cannon of work includes three short films and one feature all made in the 1930’s. Given the quality of this work, had the man lived beyond his twenty-nine years he would have quite possibly delivered a substantial number of films which we would have come to consider classics. The cynic amongst us might argue that Vigo’s status is in fact due to his untimely death not in spite of it, and had tuberculosis not taken him, then he wouldn’t be remembered in such a rose tinted light. For the cynics there is simply one thing left to do – watch L’Atalante. Any debate as to the films value is rendered null and void, whether you enjoy the film or not its qualities are difficult to deny.
The film is a lyrical and romantic story of a pair of young newly weds, Juliette and Jean who immediately after marrying begin to settle into their new life aboard a working boat heading to Paris by the canal. Jean is the skipper, and under him are two deck hands Jules and Le Camelot. All four live together on the relatively small, and claustrophobic boat which is filled with not only themselves but the crews belongings including the vast collection of traveling memorabilia which Jules has acquired from the many nations he has visited. Problems emerge quickly as each of the occupants become irritated with the other, and the heartfelt stability of the newly weds begins to crumble as the couple squabble and bicker over petty issues and a lack of personal space. Juliette soon comes under the spell of a Parisian peddler, who attempts to court her affections, given the difficulties of the marriage his maneuvers are effective and she soon leaves Jean in search of a more exciting and tolerable existence away from the reclusive squallier she’s been calling home.
The story is fairly simple; its execution is where the films reputation stems from. Firstly it is exceptionally honest with its charmingly simple characters. Neither Jean or Juliette are completely to blame for the disintegration of their relationship, and equally neither of them are completely innocent. There is also something tender and natural about Vigo’s direction, even in the films most heightened sections like a brief bar room brawl are played relatively naturalistically for the time. A surprise comes later when the film very briefly and subtly merges realism and surrealism, the beautiful and touching moment is set up by the films romantic notion that you can see the one you love when you put your head in water and open your eyes, Juliette tells Jean that this is how she knew she’d marry him, because she saw him in the water. Later after Juliette has left him Jean in a moment of despair drops himself off the barge and into the murky canal waters below, whilst under he sees the ghostly figure of his estranged wife and decides to resurface. There is something endlessly watchable about L’Atalante, it is riddled with beautifully simple moments which warm the heart, be it Juliette’s amusement at a ghastly puppet Jules has acquired in his travels, or a man pretending that a tattoo of a face his smoking a cigarette, using his navel as a mouth, or just simply the energy with which everyone moves around the boat, or the humour in their superficial conflicts. It also presents the differences between country and city living in a subtle and not manipulative manner as Juliette wanders the metropolitan that are both unfamiliar and frightening to her sheltered existence.
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