L’Atalante (1934)

“He made jokes all the time. Spending a day with him was wonderful and gruelling, even a few weeks before his death. He was such a vivacious person.”

‘L’Atalante’, directed by Jean Vigo in 1934, is a simple love story focussing on a couple of newlyweds, Jean and Juliette, who make their home on a barge. The couple, and the other two crewmembers travel to Paris and in the course of their journey the husband and wife argue, talk, explore the city and temporarily go their separate ways. The highlights of the film are the combining of the domestic details of life on the barge with the almost mythic, ethereal depiction of the barge itself and the journey. It’s difficult to separate the fact that Vigo was dying during the production of the film from the cinematography, the barge is shown floating through dense mists, the river becomes a symbolic extra character. There’s something almost classical about the simple but profound subtexts generated by the movie. As with Vigo’s earlier shorter films, here he occasionally strays into abstract fantasy, juxtaposing scenes of realism with those showing characters dreaming or having offbeat conversations; it’s like a collision between Truffaut and Fellini. The eccentric performances, especially that of cat loving old-hand Père Jules, played by Michel Simon, stand out and give the movie a richness. What stood out for me, though was how unexpectedly edgy it was: despite the romantic plot, the film always felt on the cusp of tipping into violence and disorder. Much like Vigo’s earlier ‘Zéro de Conduite’ it has a sense of anarchy, but instead of being embedded in the plot, in ‘L’Atalante’ the disorder is in the way it’s filmed and in the nature of the characters.

Would I recommend it? In a double-bill with ‘Zéro de Conduite’, at which point you’ll have seen most of Vigo’s work.

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