France (1934) Dir. Jean Vigo

After dipping my toes into the unique world of the tragic avant-garde French director Jean Vigo via his short films, it is time to dive in head first with his only feature length film, L’Atalante. Debuting just weeks before Vigo’s death aged 29 from TB, the film was not well received by audiences and critics alike, presumably still aghast at his previous short film Zero For Conduct. Like many critical failures, the film found its audience later on and is now regarded as an influential arthouse classic.

It’s a simple story of a newlywed couple Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) who chose to live together on Jean’s barge, L’Atalante, which they will be sharing with first mate Père Jules (Michel Simon), the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) and a family of cats. Just as the group seems to gel Jean gets jealous of the attention Juliette gets from Père and later from a street pedlar (Gilles Margaritis) when the couple stop off in Paris. Upset at Jean’s behaviour Juliette takes off into the night leaving a distraught Jean to think she has left him.

If we have learned anything from his short films Jean Vigo does not tell a simple story, leaning towards abstract expressionism and surreal symbolism to make up his narrative. Vigo’s time as a camera assistant before crossing over into directing dictated his visual style and penchant for experimenting with images, and while the short films essentially allowed him free range to do this (À propos de Nice is the best example), L’Atalante is not completely immune to it, nor is it beholden to it either.

Admittedly the first half of the film is a tad erratic and uneven, possibly due to the fact this film has been cut to ribbons over the years with this DVD version being the closest restoration available. The amusing opening sees the happy couple lead their guests to the docks where the barge is waiting much to their disapproval, as Juliette is a nice country girl who had never left the tiny village. Once they set sail, Juliette is essentially the cook and cleaner of the crew (this was 1934), which doesn’t sit well with grubby old Père but this plot thread is buried beneath a series of amusing if disconnected skits with equally random dialogue as the journey progresses.

Jean’s sudden jealousy denotes the story finally finding its focus and while some may find this conventional drama territory, Vigo individual style has not been diminished by this, if anything it‘s allowed him to explore this scenario with his distinctive flair. The street pedlar who woos Juliette provides some gentle fun, with a cheeky but lively performance that takes in magic tricks, dancing and some Del Boy-esque patter, resulting in an acrobatic fight with the bar owner!

Vigo’s ability to create lyrical imagery from the simple scenario of a separated husband and wife is a visual highlight of this film, saying so much with so little. A rather bold and erotic scene sees the couple essentially feeling each other’s sensual vibes despite being miles apart, both writhing in their beds as if they were together yet sadly aware they are not. Another magical moment comes when Jean sees a mercurial image of Juliette underwater, stemming from a line from Juliette early in the film where she tells Jean you can see the one you love in the water.

While our leading couple are busy with their domestic see-saw ride grumpy old Père and the unnamed cabin boy flit between the roles of comic relief and a pointed reminder of the drudgery that is the nautical life. Covered in tattoos with a tale behind each one, Père looks the part of the typical captain more than Jean does, missing only an eye patch and bandana. Once Juliette breaks down his grizzled barriers she finds a sad man with a soft nature, demonstrated by his love for his cats.

In fact, it is the cats – originally pet dog in the draft script – who threaten to steal the show. They are exceptionally well behaved and interact naturally and convivially with the human cast, providing many a merry moment in the process. One such scene sees the cabin boy trying to sleep while a kitten is crawling over his face, licking it and pawing at it. Amazingly actor Louis Lefebvre achieves this difficult act without moving a muscle while his feline co-star continues unabated in utter bemusement.

By the time of filming the TB was taking its toll on Vigo’s life yet there are no signs of this being the work of a sickly man, such is the verve and cheeky energy present behind each frame. He may not have been so ambitiously creative with all his shots but one can feel Vigo’s intention to put his own spin on this well worn yarn of a love being tested. The camerawork courtesy of Boris Kaufman is again an important magical element, notably an early shot of the Juliette in her bridal gown at the front of the barge with Jean holding her waist from behind which I am sure influenced James Cameron for Titanic.

There is an energy and spark in this film which is distinctly French, found in many New Wave films of the 50’s and 60’s and the comedies of Jacques Tati, while the execution of the love story feels like a less abrasive version of the silent classic Cœur fidèle. On the casting front, Jean Dasté and Michel Simon have a palpable French aura about them but the effervescent Dita Parlo sparkles with Hollywood-esque glamour even if she is clad mostly in modest attire.

It took a while but I found L’Atalante to be a delightfully whimsical and often subversive take on a simple romantic premise with much to praise it for. However I can’t see myself joining the “masterpiece” brigade, although I am sure I will appreciate this more on repeated viewings.

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