Jean Vigo’s first and only feature-length film, L’Atalante can often be found snuggled amongst critics’ best-of-all-time lists. A quiet, subtle, and brilliantly simple story of a loved-up but immature young couple, L’Atalante is a Breton-striped dream-like journey through love and loss on the canals of France.

After a heavy-handed editing process that mutilated the 1934 version, it might have faded into obscurity had it not been picked up, embraced and echoed by the directors of the French New Wave. 2012 sees the release of L’Atalante’s full 89-minute version in selected cinemas across the country.

It’s hard to separate this haunting little film from the tragic story of its director. By the time filming of L’Atalante had begun, Jean Vigo had fallen seriously ill and had to direct much of it from a stretcher. He left for the mountains soon after shooting ended, hoping to regain his strength before the film’s release. He died just a few weeks after, aged just 29. But while the film’s set might have been overshadowed by death, not an ounce of it shows through on-screen. L’Atalante is bursting at the seams with life, love and simple joys.

L’Atalante tells the story of Jean and Juliette, two young newlyweds embarking on married life together on the husband’s barge. Along with the drunkard barge-hand Père Jules, an impish cabin-boy and an uncountable number of cats, they head away from their village lives with the bright lights of Paris in their sights. Children at heart, the couple are desperately in love but find it hard to adapt to life together on the barge. While Juliette begins to resent being cooped up in the cramped cabin and longs for city life, Jean is prone to jealous rages and ends up pushing her away. When she secretly leaves to go exploring, Jean decides to up sticks and set off without her. Both regret their actions almost immediately, incapable of living without each other. With the help of his barge-hand and cabin-boy, Jean sets out to find Juliette and put everything right again.

It’s a plot so slight it’s barely there at all. But Vigo isn’t interested in twists and turns. He doesn’t lead us down dark alleys or pull the rug from under our feet. The secret to L’Atalante’s power is in its frank, lo-fi simplicity. It’s in the film’s quiet moments, the scenes where nothing is really happening at all, that the film is at its most enchanting. In a lovely moment early on, Juliette tells Jean to stick his head into a bucket of water, claiming that he’ll see the face of the one he loves if he looks hard enough. And later, Père Jules is mystified to find his long-dead phonograph suddenly burst into life, only to discover the cabin-boy is playing the accordion every time he cues it up. L’Atalante unearths moments of poetry even in the most unlikely of places.

The newlywed couple make up the restless, reckless heart of L’Atalante. Dita Parlo is brilliantly innocent and vivacious as the child-like Juliette. With her bright saucer eyes and soft, rounded face she takes in the world around her, constantly looking for something bigger, better and more exciting. Stubborn, flighty and naïve, she’s ready to love Jean but is too impatient to see it through. Jean Dasté as barge captain Jean may be a bit more self-consciously reserved than his wife, but he’s just as childish. Determined to prove himself as the mature, worldly-wise husband, Jean calls his new wife’s bluff and leaves her to fend for herself in an unforgiving city. Ultimately, L’Atalante sees them both grow up, learn from their mistakes and find out what love really means.

But it’s the fantastic Michel Simon who steals most of the scenes out from under their noses. As Père Jules, he had me sniggering from the get-go, as I watched Jules and the cabin-boy flail about trying, and failing, to prepare the boat for the arrival of the newlyweds. Later, he takes advantage of the cabin-master’s lack of interest in their draughts games to make a sneaky bid for victory, taking it upon himself to play Jean’s moves for him. But the playful and mischievous Jules is so much more than just a comedy buffoon. His heart is in the right place, and – as his endless collection of cats would no doubt agree – he’s got a lot of love to give. He’s not as stupid as he looks; when Juliette takes a tour around his cabin, she’s fascinated by all the little trinkets he’s brought back from his travels around the world. Jules might play the fool, but this well-meaning drunk is surprisingly wise. It’s only with his help and advice that the young lovers will ever learn to live with each other.

L’Atalante is somehow cramped and claustrophobic, light and airy all at the same time. Some moments of overt genius – the underwater mirage scene is a real highlight – are found amongst dozens of other small but perfect details. L’Atalante is so quiet, subtle and unassuming, that to slap that ‘one of the best films of all time’ label on it seems a little bit cruel. Such a delicate little film might well crumble under the weight of such sky-high expectations. Best watched on a drizzly evening, L’Atalante is best appreciated for what it is: a lovely little trap-door onto a world where life, love and loss seem just a little bit simpler.


Review by Avalon Lyndon

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