(France - 1934)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Jean Vigo
Screenplay: Jean Guinee, Jean Vigo, & Albert Reira
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Composer: Maurice Jaubert
Runtime: 89 minutes

“Things are gonna change!” – Juliette

Directing from a stretcher in the cold of winter before dying of tuberculosis at a mere 29 years of age, Jean Vigo’s free-spirited fever dream mixes his documentary and surrealist tendencies to create rhythmic poetry. Atalante is one of the most beloved first features, having finished among the 10 greatest films, period, in the 1992 Sight & Sound poll of directors and critics.

Beneath, and often because of, its lack of plot, throwaway dialogue, and pranksterish tendencies lies an extraordinarily honest and perceptive look at the difficulties of being bound to another human being for life. Vigo’s film starts with newlyweds Jean (Jean Daste), a responsible ship captain, and Juliette (Dita Parlo), who has never left her tight nit pastoral village, marching to begin their “honeymoon”, and the rest of their lives, on the eponymous ship and ends around the time for the ship to begin the journey back. Dziga Vertov’s brother with a movie camera Boris Kaufman films what seems to be one aside after another, but something comes from many of them, other than laughs and fun for the audience. Vigo isn’t one of the slew of bad directors who thinks everything must have a plot payoff, which allows the film to have rich, lively characters and seem so wonderfully alive.

The characters simply being themselves leads to marital problems in a more organic manner than the throwaway plot driven fare. They do, and don’t do, what they are used to, and you either tolerate the other person’s tendencies, habits, and priorities or try to change them. In Vigo you can be intolerable one moment for some annoying thing you say or do, but appealing the next. The newlyweds alternate between bickering and kissing in this highly sensual film that’s a testimony to the tension easing power of sex. They don’t mean to fight, but Juliette isn’t used to a closet overfull with dirty clothes or cats on the table and Jean isn’t used to ever putting duty second.

The other two crew members are obviously effected by the new member as well. La pere Jules (Michel Simon) might be second in command, but is always trying to be the center of attention. He gives demonstrations of his knowledge and skill, and even if he’s not particularly knowledgeable or skillful the older man can convey his experiences and is entertaining in a foolish sort of way. Jules tries a seduction of a sort, probably only different than the ones he uses with men in that he realizes men tend to become more interesting to women by showing their feminine side (and vice versa) because its easier to relate to what you are more used to. While Jules charming Juliette has the typical result of making the husband jealous, it just doesn’t come off as deliberate and contrived as usual because it’s derived from a brief series of interactions that are unimportant in and of themselves rather than ones where they might as well put a sign up that says deliberate lustful intent. What Vigo removes is the psychology. His film is freer because it’s based on human nature.

Miguel Almareyda, Vigo’s father, was a noted anarchist newspaper operator who died in prison when his son was 12. Vigo brings that spirit to his film, particularly in the Jules character. Michel Simon, in particular, does a lot of ad libbing. He believed a scene was only real the first time, as repetition inherently made it a lie by eliminating the originality, spontaneity, and inspiration. The memorable work of this legendary character actor was for directors who didn’t force him into many retakes. One such director was Jean Renoir, who Simon made his name with in such classics as La Chienne and Bondu Saved from Drowning. Jean Daste was also in Bondu, as well as being repaired with Dita Parlo in Grand Illusion

What makes Atalante so memorable is the events of marriage and sailing take a back seat to thoughts, feelings, and dreams the experiences evoke. It’s not that the newlyweds don’t love each other or aren’t right for one another, just that the adjustment to married life is difficult for everyone. Obviously it’s harder for Juliette who has left everyone she ever knew behind, and quickly finds the grand adventure of the sea is a monotonous and dull trek past the same dull river banks. Jean & Juliette’s love is stronger when they’re apart, which makes for some stunning crosscut sequences. One takes place with the lovers in separate beds touching themselves while fantasizing about the other. The editing matches their movements to make it appear they are together and action is causing reaction.

Though an early sound film, its heart is very much in the silent era. Maurice Jaubert’s typically superb score is the only sound that goes a long way toward telling the story. Vigo was a pioneer of underwater photography, and once again crafts a memorable submerged sequence with Jean searching for the image of his true love in the water, which is eventually delivered through superimposition.

As a whole, the film plays like the Nouvelle vague 25 years before it happened. A young Francois Truffaut was particularly influenced by L’Atalante despite seeing the old Gaumont hatchet work version that removes over 20 minutes from a film that’s not even 90 to start with. Vigo’s location filmmaking became one of the staples of the entire French new wave. I personally can’t see how anyone could have a reaction other than laughing John Huston’s Rear Projection Queen off the screen, even if you even hadn’t seen what Vigo was able to accomplish 17 years earlier in his debut feature with scant resources coming off his short Zero For Conduct making no money back due to being banned. Aside from Humphrey Bogart, who of course nabs the bogus award when he’s hardly at his best, there’s hardly anything believable about that film. They may have filmed in the Congo, Uganda, Zaire, & Turkey, but they could have filmed at the creek by my house for all the influence the locale had on the stars. None of the feeling or adventure of those places comes across in the finished product due to the way they chose to make it. I could go on about the influence the clouds have on L’Atalante, the imagination and shaded cinematography that captures the feelings and moods, but ultimately what separates the two films is Vigo’s vibrant work is alive in every way.




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