L’atalante

L’atalante (1934): France – directed by Jean Vigo

Not rated by the MPAA – contains a single nude pin-up and mature themes

L’atalante is a deliberate, slowly paced film.  At the same time it appears almost haphazardly constructed, with a loose plot.  It presents some themes, however, that are at once raw and powerful, and it is a striking look at the difficulties faced by the two participants in a new marriage.

Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté) are freshly married in a small village in France.  The villagers wonder why she’s decided to marry a boat captain, a trade that will require the pair of them to travel up and down the rivers of France, occasionally stopping at larger cities and smaller docks.

They won’t be alone on their barge, however.  The first mate, a surly, rude, and unkempt fellow by the name of Jules (Michel Simon), proves both a companion and a hindrance to the couple.  Additionally, there is a younger boy (Louis Lefebvre) who helps out around the ship, though it appears he may be a bit dim-witted.  Finally, there are a plethora of cats, kept by Jules, that continue to multiply throughout the film.

Jean and Juliette’s marital joy is evident at first, despite a few setbacks.  Jean and Jules are accustomed to doing laundry once a year, a trait that repulses Juliette.  Jules’ cats have kittens on their bed, but all of this is taken in stride.  Despite these difficulties it is clearly evident that these are young lovers, taking great joy in each other’s company and bodies.

The boat proves to be a prison for them, after some time.  Juliette yearns to see the larger cities, eagerly listening to radio broadcasts explaining the newest fashions in the City of Lights.  But she must bide her time, often relegated to doing chores and sitting around.  She strikes up an odd friendship with Jules.  He is an bizarre character, one who has traveled many years and has tales from each stop along the way.  His room is filled with strange and wonderful gadgets, some of them musical, some of them risque, and some of them beautiful.

Jean has a problem with their relationship, accusing them of all sorts of indecencies.  The situation does not clear up once they get to Paris.  A planned trip with Juliette turns sour when Jules wanders into the city in search of women and drink.  After some time the newlyweds get a chance to strike out on their own.  They venture into a local establishment, where a jester/merchant sings songs and entertains the crowd while hocking his wares.  His attentions turn towards the lovely Juliette, attention that Jean does not appreciate.

Jean’s jealousness, combined with the repressive atmosphere of the barge and the foggy rivers, eventually drives the couple apart.  They are unhappy without one another, and perhaps find that they each took their relationship for granted.  But the story is not told in broad strokes; intimate scenes, set within the dirty, disgusting confines of the barge illuminate the couple’s difficulties and joys.  It is this subtlety that makes L’atalante so effective.

Jean Vigo’s direction is human and warm; he crafts characters and allows them to occupy the difficult situations in which they are placed.  His images are only occasionally striking.  The majority of the cinematography pre-dates and foreshadows the popular realism that would soon find new life in Italy.  Not all contemporary audiences will the enjoy the film, however.  Some might find it a bit slow, or perhaps old-fashioned.  It has a right to be, considering that it was made in 1934.  Those with the patience to sit through the entire movie will be rewarded with a touching story, honest characters, and a challenging view of a fresh marriage facing the difficulties of the real world.

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