L'Atalante (1934)

Jean Vigo’s first and only feature is a beautiful film that coexists in the realm of romanticism and realism. Simultaneously wonderful and downtrodden, the film oscillates between sweeping melodrama and tragic romance. Along the way, Jean Vigo finds time to play with some film techniques and give the little romance a stylistic zest.

Small town girl Juliette (Dita Parlo) finds herself swept away after she marries riverman Jean (Jean Dasté), captain of the L’Atalante. Their “honeymoon” begins as they travel by Jean’s boat towards Paris. Juliette longingly listening to the radio broadcasts from Paris, but both soon find that the honeymoon is over before it begins as the reality of a tough relationship begins to emerge as they spend more time together on the river.

The strength of the story, which Vigo co-adapted with Albert Riéra, is the ease at which it transitions between the tones of the relationship between the couple. Early on their relationship is sweet, playful and sexy, but as the realities of their life on the ship slowly begin to pile up, they begin to encroach on the naïve and youthful relationship between the couple.

Also compounding their marital tensions is the elderly second mate of the ship, Le père Jules (Michel Simon) who’s eccentricities and desire to live life on the naughty becomes a divisive finger between the couple. Jean’s role as captain responsible for Jules clashes with his role as husband with Juliette. This allows for organic growth of issues and hurtles the couple must overcome.

Jean Vigo’s creative elegance allows him to effortlessly transition between these tensions in the film. There are the beautiful, elegant shots that add to the gleeful tone of early romance, often focusing on playful framing and vigorous action on screen. Vigo also plays with some of the more psychological angels later in the film with the dissolve which allows him to bridge the disparate tones.

Where Vigo’s true skill shows up is in visually building to the darker and atmospheric shots that match the downturn in the film’s tone. Of course, the setting on the river is ideal for this as banks of fog and dark, dim nights encase the characters. Stark, bold images are punctuated by odd and unexpected angles, giving this section of the film an edgy, and off-centered feeling.

Vigo still tries to remain playful in these sections, mostly through the use of music. One of the recurring artifacts in the film is a broken record player and the film also continues to return to a sailor’s ditty. Vigo finds ways to use music and visuals together to create unexpected and wonderful moments of cinematic bliss.

In this way L’Atalante is a bridge between the image heavy expression of the silent era and the dialogue heavy era of sound film. Vigo is at his peak in the department of pure music and image, but the characters and their interactions are still strong. While nowhere near the cinematic achievement of À propos de Nice, there’s a lot of joy and delight to be had with L’Atalante.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Someone here probably got the entire Jean Vigo collection from Criterion…

    • I didn’t get it, but I did rent it from Netflix. A good set. The middle two films I didn’t have much to say on, they’re decent, but his first film and first feature were so good I felt compelled to write about them.

  • I imagine I’ll watch all four of his films together, and I’m looking forward to it. Glad to hear this isn’t as good as A propos de Nice, because that one sounded a lot more interesting than this one.

    • It’s still really good, but A propos de Nice is so much fun and so much more unrestrained.