When critics talk about L’Atalante it usually doesn’t take long for them to start discussing the legendary short life of its director Jean Vigo, who died of tuberculosis shortly after the film’s release in 1934. Whilst the production history of the film is fascinating, it can lead many to overlook the exquisite beauty of a feature that is a must-see for any lover of film.
Juliette (Dita Parlo) leaves her serene village life behind after marrying barge captain Jean (Jean Dasté). After the strains of living on the river with fellow crew member Pére Jules (Michel Simon), a lowly cabin boy and far too many cats takes its inevitable toll, Juliette is tempted by the lights of Paris and flees from the tatters of her marriage.
The simple yet moving love story of Jean and Juliette is raised to new heights by the ebb and flow of Vigo’s use of both fantasy and realism. The late director’s ability to invoke the very smell of the Seine along with the claustrophobia of barge life through his skillful cinematography is remarkable in its poignancy.
L’Atalante’s moments of fantasy were disliked so much by Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert – who commissioned the work – that Vigo re-cut the film beyond recognition, but they remain some of the most fascinating segments. After Juliette’s departure to depression-era Paris, Jean stares into the water to discover a mirage that drives him to find his lost love. In the shift from the prosaic issues of barge life to theses fantastical moments, Vigo shifts the film into a pseudo-fairytale of a prince searching out his princess.
Michel Simon’s heart-warming and eccentric performance as Pére Jules is excellent and responsible for much of the film’s humour. The very antithesis of Jean, Pére Jules provides comfort to the oft-distraught Juliette through music and old sailing yarns in what is the finest performance of Simon’s career. All the characters fluctuate between the fantastical and the true-to-life with complete grace. This is perhaps the very genius of L’Atalante – its sublime ability to course with ease between these disparate elements in all its aspects.
Vigo achieved complete cinematic poetry with L’Atalante. Only since 1994 have audiences had the chance to see Vigo’s restored masterpiece and with this BFI rerelease we are once again able to enjoy this seminal (and highly entertaining) classic slice of cinema.