Atalante, L’ (1934)

“Paris, Paris! Oh infamous, marvelous city!”

L'Atalante Poster

Synopsis:
A pair of young newlyweds (Dita Parlo and Jean Daste) find their happiness threatened when Parlo becomes bored with life aboard Daste’s barge, L’Atalante, and desires more excitement in Paris.

Genres:

Review:
In addition to his 47-minute featurette Zero de Conduite (1933), Jean Vigo only made one full-length film — this tale of newlywed bliss and strife — before his untimely death from lung failure at the age of 29. More a visual “tone poem” than a complex narrative (indeed, the dialogue is almost superfluous), L’Atalante tells the simple yet powerful story of newlyweds whose marital happiness is quickly disrupted by Parlo’s realization that life aboard her husband’s shipping vessel is cramped, dirty, and boring, and won’t offer nearly the level of excitement she was hoping for when leaving her provincial home. Fortunately, photogenic Parlo never comes across as shrewish in her demands; rather, she’s seductively sweet as a true innocent learning about both the wider world and conjugal bliss for the first time. Her scenes with Daste — they grasp for each other at every chance — are alternately playful and deeply erotic, effectively depicting the strong sexual tensions holding this couple together despite the challenges they face.

Parlo gains at least some measure of enjoyment from getting to know “Papa Jules” (Michel Simon), Daste’s grizzled shipmate with a penchant for odd curios, and a mild crush on the young bride. Whenever he’s on-screen, Simon — only 40 in real life, though his character appears to be older — dominates the story. Simon was an acknowledged star by this point in his career, and his semi-improvised scenes throughout L’Atalante show why; with his hound dog countenance and clownish demeanor, he’s both riveting and hilarious to behold. He’s incorrigible, too — as indicated in his irreverent retort to Daste when questioned about a photo of a nude woman on his cabin wall:

Daste: “What’s the picture?”
Simon: “Me as a kid!”

The true “stars” of L’Atalante, however, are Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (along with composer Maurice Jaubert), who collectively depict some of the most haunting and memorable images in French film history. Notable sequences (just a few among many) include the opening “wedding march”; Parlo discovering Simon’s “pickled hands” in a jar; Daste seeing Parlo’s bridal visage while swimming underwater; and Vigo’s masterful depiction of the couple reaching out to one another in sleep from their separate beds. L’Atalante makes it clear that Vigo possessed a uniquely poetic voice in cinema; this “first feature” is a sad hint of his future genius, had he lived past the age of 30.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A sweet, sensual depiction of newlywed love
    L'Atalante Romance
  • Michel Simon as Papa Jules
    L'Atalante Simon
  • Dita Parlo as Juliette
    L'Atalante Dita Parlo
  • Excellent use of naturalistic locales
    L'Atalante Locales
  • Boris Kaufman’s cinematography
    L'Atalante Cinematography
  • Countless memorable images and scenes
    L'Atalante Imagery
    L'Atalante Hands
    L'Atalante Imagery2
    L'Atalante Daste
  • Maurice Jaubert’s playful score

Must See?
Yes, as an early classic of French cinema. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Atalante, L’ (1934)”

  1. A gem!

    The assessment here of this sweet yet raw, somewhat ragamuffin tale is so well thought out and so well put (esp. the remark about the film’s true “stars” being the director, cinematographer and composer) that I think I actually have nothing to add – except that Simon’s performance kept making me think of Tom Waits (a fave).

    I will say, though, that the film is deceptively simple – meaning it has surprising emotional depth. Following that thought, the most memorable sequence for me is when the couple comes across a whimsical, flirtatious street vendor in a club – and the husband comes to realize other aspects of his young wife’s needs.

    Now over 75 years old, ‘L’atalante’ appears timeless and oddly fresh.

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