Dita Parlo stars as the beautiful, birdlike Juliette, a young bride who begins married life aboard her husband Jean’s (Jean Dasté) barge on the Seine, having never previously left her village. The young couple are forced to share the boat’ cramped confines with a small crew including the unkempt, eccentric Père Jules (a breathtaking physical performance by Michel Simon) and his army of beloved cats, whose inquisitiveness know no bounds. Despite their initial joy at setting out aboard L’Atalante, their relationship soon hits the rocks as Juliette’s adventurous nature collides with Michel’s intense jealousy and unpredictable mood swings, with only the unhinged Père Jules on-hand to mediate between the two.
With L’Atalante, Vigo masterfully captures the uncertainty of life on the French waterways between the two world wars, throwing together an unlikely band of misfits representing a broad spectrum of social classes. Blushing bride Juliette appears a typical country girl, having never before left her village community yet hungry to experience the pomp and glamour of Paris, much to the aggravation of her erratically tempered new husband Jean. Consequently, Jean gradually devolves into a green-eyed monster, only seeing the errors of his ways at the last possible moment.
However, it is the performance of Simon as the grizzled, sozzled ex-naval officer Père Jules that undeniably steals the show, providing both bathos and pathos by the bucket-load. On a visit to his below-deck quarters, the ever-curious Juliette discovers an exotic world of trinkets and treasures from across the globe, including Oriental antiquities and even the hands of one of Père Jules deceased crew mates preserved in a pickle jar. Simon perfectly conveys the innate mystery and melancholy of a drunken nomad, who has lost more than Juliette and Jean may ever hope to have.
Put simply, Vigo’s L’Atalante is not only a timeless classic of early French cinema, but also one of the greatest auteurial works produced in any form or medium. The director’s tragic death at such a tender age only helps to accentuate his bountiful talents, leading to inevitable thoughts of what could have been had he been given the time to work his unique brand of poetic realism even further. Fortunately, L’Atalante and his shorts À Propos de Nice (1930), Taris (1931) and Zero de Conduite (1933 serve as a more-than-fitting tribute to this remarkable filmmaker.
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