L’Atalante (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Jean Vigo. Starring Dita Parlo (as Juliette), Jean Dasté (as Jean), Michel Simon (as Père Jules), Gilles Margaritis (as peddler), Louis Lefebvre (as cabin boy), Maurice Gilles (as manager), and Raphaël Diligent (as Raspoutine).
L’Atalante’s 1962 appearance on Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of the ten greatest films of all time, alongside such classics as Citizen Kane (1941) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), solidified its status as a cineaste favorite and required arthouse fare. François Truffaut and others have advocated for its brilliance, lyricism, and admirable earthiness. Yet the film community’s insistence on L’Atalante’s greatness has distanced some modern critics from it, including David Kamp and Lawrence Levi, who fail to see profundity in its artful shots and poetic sequences. While it is not clear to me that it belongs alongside Kane or Potemkin, or that it outranks other French films of its era such as The Grand Illusion (1937), L’Atalante is nevertheless an important work and a fine example of how invigorating and offbeat 1930s French cinema could be. It shares much in common with Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), whose lead actor Michel Simon also appears here in a prominent role.
The movie opens with the wedding of the two protagonists: Juliette, who comes from a rural town, and barge captain Jean. Still in their wedding finery, the two cast off with first mate Jules, a cabin boy, and a ship full of cats as they make their way along the river to Paris. Juliette is quickly dissatisfied with life on the barge, and she and Jean begin to quarrel. When Jean takes her ashore to a dance hall, she encounters a peddler magician who proposes that she run off with him to the city. She fights with Jean, and at night she sneaks off the barge to explore Paris for herself. In anger Jean continues along the river without her. Juliette’s purse is stolen, and to make money she takes a job on shore and then finds an apartment. She and Jean long for each other, and to restore order on the ship, Jules returns to the city to search for her. After he locates her in a music store, he brings her back to the barge, where she is happily reunited with Jean.
L’Atalante starts by presenting Jean and Juliette’s wedding, a traditional event with many guests that nevertheless hints at the unorthodox couple’s idiosyncrasies. The bride Juliette is a woman who, we hear one guest say, “always [has] to do things differently.” Fittingly, the newlyweds will have no wedding reception. We see the couple in ceremonial attire traversing fields and empty landscapes to reach the river where Jean’s barge resides. Why they have chosen to walk the long distance is unclear, and they look estranged from the environment in their wedding finery. When the bride reaches the barge, she swings onto the vessel in her shining white wedding gown while grasping a wooden boom, resulting in another quirky moment. The couple’s first day on the barge together is capped with footage of Juliette meandering along the length of the dark ship still in her white dress, looking slightly spooky and out of place. Through its lively juxtaposition of images, the initial sequence encourages us to thrill to the adventurous possibilities of the couple’s unusual choices.
Juliette may crave an unconventional life, but as soon as she begins her days on the water, she grows frustrated. She pines for something that she does not, or cannot, articulate, either while listening wistfully to a fragment of a radio show from the big city or sewing a fancy skirt for an evening out that may never come. In one evocative scene, Juliette sits on the barge at night as it passes through a river fog; she is enveloped in the night mist and cannot be seen by her husband who is searching for her on deck, but as she holds herself in the thick white air, it becomes clear that she is lost in herself as well. L’Atalante manifests Juliette’s feelings of desire–for her husband, for excitement, and for the unexpected—in symbols such as the restless fog and the barge proceeding steadily up the river, but although those symbols are accompanied by motion, and she herself is carried along by the river, her tendency to yearn actually causes her to become stuck in place, a prisoner of longing.
The restless Juliette has a parallel in first mate Jules, who while not a repository for ennui, nevertheless has searched around the world for physical objects that preserve his spirited history as he travels from port to port. His quest to amass strange belongings and keep moving speaks to his own restless desire, but interestingly Jules’s cabin indicates the ability of the barge to capture and hold onto peculiar states of being. The cluttered, curio cabinet-like atmosphere of his quarters, coupled with his tattoo-covered body, his penchant for fortune telling and other mystical practices and relics, and his oddball behavior, which is reminiscent of the character Boudu in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning from 1932 (both Jules and Boudu were played by the actor Michel Simon)—all of these contribute an eccentric and unpredictable quality to river life. Jules is a reminder of how strange personalities and unusual quirks are nurtured on board the vessel, providing an opportunity for interpersonal exploration that Juliette eventually overlooks, choosing to locate adventure instead primarily in the high Parisian society she dreams of.
For all of its characters’ eccentricities, the plot of L’Atalante is fairly straightforward: a couple marries, they quarrel, she runs off to the big city, and they reunite. I am reminded superficially of the earlier film Sunrise (1927) by F. W. Murnau, also about a small-town couple contending with a relationship problem and who spend time in the big city. But while the plot of Sunrise is almost folkloric in its simplicity, L’Atalante is from a different universe. Its characters are more impulsive and spontaneous, and their mercuriality results in a sometimes oblique narrative. For example, Juliette’s decision to follow the peddler’s advice and go to the city may strike us at first as confusing. She returns to the barge after her encounter with him in the dance hall, he finds her on the barge and entreats her there, and then she retires to bed, replaying his tempting offer of escape in her head. She gets dressed and leaves—but is she going to meet him? No, as it turns out, she is not: she is merely going to the city clandestinely to do some window shopping. But her determination to see Paris alone is never articulated in language or visual cues, with the result that we can feel somewhat puzzled when she boards the train to the city by herself.
Much of L’Atalante has the potential to disorient its audience in this way, fueled by tinges of poetic realism, a movement that originated in 1930s French cinema and that mixes slightly fantastic visuals with glimpses of everyday life on the margins of society. For example, in one scene Jean cancels an outing to Paris that he has promised to Juliette but announces that they will visit a dance hall together. As he is describing the hall, we see images of it, and then we see Jean and Juliette entering it. Is this real or a fantasy, we might wonder? It turns out that it is real, but as we watch the dance hall sequence with its unusual circular set, a curious caged-in dance floor, and the peddler, who behaves so manically and performs magic tricks that make the raucous hall seem slightly heady and unreal, we may not be convinced that we are watching a real episode from Jean and Juliette’s life. Not only this sequence but other sequences as well offer slightly surreal images: Jean and Juliette walking far off into the fields across the countryside to reach the barge on their wedding day; Juliette pacing the length of the barge in her wedding gown; Jean marching across a beach to reach the sea; Jean diving into the river in search of Juliette’s image in the water; or some of the curios in Jules’s cabin, which include his friend’s hands preserved in a jar—the one thing, he says, that he has to remember him by. In general, these details almost self-consciously help to remind us of L’Atalante’s representational, film-like nature, its status as a work of art.
Yet for all of the art-minded qualities of L’Atalante, it nevertheless has at its heart a plausible and sometimes sweet relationship. Juliette wants to take care of Jean, do his laundry, and cook for him. He enjoys her company and likes to be playful with her. After she tells him that according to an old wives’ tale, when he plunges his head into water, he should be able to see his true love, he teases her by dunking his head in a pail and then climbing into a rowboat, lowering himself into the river. Later he dives into the river because he wants the legend to be true and keenly desires to see his estranged wife’s face.
They are both also erotically well-suited for each other. In a sequence following their separation that is both suggestive and graphic, we see them alone in single beds, caressing themselves; Juliette reaches into her negligee and grabs her left breast at one point. Implying that a movie couple shares not only the mundane tasks of maintaining a life together in common but also basic sexual longing—powerfully exhibited either when crammed into their tiny cabin bed together (where they sleep every night while wearing very little) or even when they are separate from each other—is something that American movies from this time would shortly be curbed from sharing by the Hollywood Production Code but that French movies could afford to offer more liberally for years to come.
But lest we should think that their sex life solves everything for them, we often see Juliette and Jean fight with each other. He pushes her in one scene and in anger smashes dishes, and of course she later runs away from him for a night of fun in the city. The movie is content to offer us a love story about petty spats and rash decisions, passion and uncertainty. Juliette and Jean find each other in the end; their marriage will survive for the time being, and their love is rekindled, but their future is uncertain. As Roger Ebert observed in his review of L’Atalante, it is likely that the two will see more fights and arguments like the one that threatens to break them up. The sometimes glaring imperfections in their relationship give the movie a firm grounding in reality that the more poetic sequences build on but do not supplant.
Although the characters thrive in the film’s happy conclusion, L’Atalante is associated with a somber event in French cinema history: the death of the film’s director, Jean Vigo. He passed away at the age of 29 from complications related to tuberculosis just shortly after L’Atalante was released. The foggy, damp air on the river took its toll on his health, and he reportedly directed from a stretcher periodically during filming. Vigo’s other films, including Zero of Conduct (1933), were short works, and as his sole feature-length production, L’Atalante hints at what else Vigo could potentially have done on a larger scale. His influence was felt and carried on by the members of the French New Wave, in whose films references to L’Atalante can be readily perceived. For lovers of Vigo’s work, however, L’Atalante will potently always resemble the hands of first mate Jules’s best friend, enigmatically jarred in brine: a symbol for the offbeat legacy of a special talent, and a synecdoche for a career that was abruptly truncated.