Friday, April 08, 2011

L'Atalante (1934)

France, 89 minutes
Director: Jean Vigo
Writers: Jean Guinee, Albert Riera, Jean Vigo
Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Editor: Louis Chavance
Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-informed follower of cinema—a lightweight among the real cineastes, to be sure, but in possession of a basic knowledge of the road map and landmarks. Thus it was surprising to me to find a title so high on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—in the top 20 no less—with which I was not even passingly familiar, with the movie itself or even with its director, Jean Vigo.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. L'Atalante did get a DVD release, in 2003, but it's out of print now and also unavailable through Netflix. Prices for it are not particularly kind, presently starting at $22 for a used copy and $93 for a new, and so, cheapskate that I am, I turned to a VHS version that's still easily obtainable. The print is mediocre, the running time seven minutes less than what's indicated on IMDb, and—oh, indignity—the title is misspelled "L'Atlante" on box and tape. Shabby treatment indeed for such a perfectly charming picture.

Was it worth the time and effort to track down? There is always something satisfying about the treasure hunt. Still, ever prone to the temptations of armchair psychology, I have a sense that the very high ranking by critical consensus is likely some lingering artifact of director Vigo's early death shortly after completing this, dead from complications of tuberculosis before he was even 30. Good-looking corpses tend to be rewarded in many fields of endeavor, not just film, but the movies do seem particularly partial to them.

There's no question of the loss, however. With just a very few films to Vigo's credit, it's easy enough even on the basis of L'Atalante to trace a line to Marcel Carne and from there to Francois Truffaut and other figures in the French New Wave. Besides being French, all are concerned with the lilting poetries that life affords even as they ground their flights in quotidian realities.

Alluring and allusive, as salty as it is lovely, L'Atalante recounts via episodic vignettes the story of a pair of newlyweds (played by Dita Parlo and Jean Daste) and their working honeymoon and early days of marriage aboard the husband's river barge, whose name provides the title of the film. The picture starts immediately after the wedding, with the couple's march to the barge accompanied by their fellow revelers. There's no courtship, no meet-cute story. They are simply married and the picture is underway.

A surprising amount of complexity gets packed in as the couple confront the realities of their union, the eruptions of petty bickering and resentments and the realization of the limitations that love will not transcend. Various oddball characters are on hand to lend a somewhat unsettling tone, most notably the memorable first mate (played by Michel Simon), and there's a surprising (and surprisingly frank) amount of sexual tension throughout as well.

The direction is light-handed and sure, with swirling mixes of arresting visual imagery, surprising camera angles from well below and well above the action, or that capture impossibly long views. Isolated process shots are compelling, even more so for how sparingly they are used. An underwater sequence is absolutely beautiful. Unexpected sight gags are incorporated too, such as one nice one where a character rubs the surface of a record with his finger and music plays. Elaborate turns to music are continual, and include characters who erupt into song, though L'Atalante is by no means a musical. There's a nice rhythm to the events, which almost seem to come and go randomly, unified only by the barge that travels down the river and eventually stops in Paris for a visit, where a plot begins to emerge that indicates the marriage may be in some trouble.

Jean Daste is fine as the husband barely in control of his feelings of love and jealousy amid pervasive and ongoing crises of self-confidence. Dita Parlo, who I particularly love in Grand Illusion, is wonderful as the young wife, a plucky woman searching for her role in a vastly strange new life, and who realizes she just might be in over her head.

As good as they both are, however, I think it's arguable that the real star ends up being Michel Simon, the bumptious, omnipresent first mate—draped in cats, sawing away at an accordion, ever the gruff yet loving curmudgeon. He is all at once charming and menacing, worldly and provincial, and he commands the screen every time he is on. When he shows off his collection of prizes to Juliette—wind-up toys and music boxes and puppets, an elephant's tusk, a stiletto with which he cuts himself to show how sharp it is, all things that he proudly avers he has collected from places such as Caracas, Singapore, San Francisco—it only hints at the depths existing behind the stolid mug he otherwise presents.

Altogether it's a very warm movie, suffused with a homely joy and somehow even comforting.


  1. I was a little disappointed when I saw this film, about 8 or 9 years ago though I expect I'd be more satisfied viewing it now. Have you seen Zero de Conduite? I think I like that Vigo more.

  2. Zero de Conduite does sound like the more interesting picture to me, though I have encountered similar difficulties getting my hands on a copy of it. If Netflix doesn't have something, it's all too easy to let it slip in priority, surrounded as I am by all the things right at hand that I want to see. I know this is one of those good problems to have, but still.