L’atalante was made in the most difficult of circumstances: the director, the 28-year-old Jean Vigo, was critically ill, the weather was abysmal, the budget was tiny, and the distributors thought the finished film worthless. They re-cut it, chopped out nearly 25 minutes of footage, and added a sentimental ballad to increase popular appeal. Unsurprisingly, it languished in obscurity until an original print was re-discovered in 1989 and restored to glory. Because it is glorious as well as witty, strange and beautiful, the fruits of a collaboration that director of photography Boris Kaufman (who went to Hollywood, and worked on On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, 12 Angry Men) described as ‘cinematic paradise’.
The story of L’atalante is a simple one: two newly-weds, a barge captain and a village girl, start their new life on the Seine. Passionately in love, they nonetheless find life tricky. The luminous Dita Parlo, who plays Juliette, craves the excitement of city life; the handsome Jean Dasté is staid and jealous as Jean. They fight, make up, and then Jean abandons Juliette when she sneaks off to Paris, and sails the barge (the Atalante of the title) away; but both are heart-broken by the separation. Vigo and Kaufman make it magical, ethereal and romantic (with a haunting score by Maurice Jaubert), but with dashes of surrealism and social realism.
L’atalante opens with the wedding, which has all the solemnity and sorrow of a funeral. Jean and Juliette wander across fields towards the barge, followed by the villagers dressed in black. On the barge the anarchic Père Jules (Michel Simon), with his coterie of kittens and cats, and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) are getting things ready for the bride. Juliette lands on the cargo hoist and in the passionate embraces of Jean, with fog enshrouding the boat.
And then life begins in earnest, with Juliette getting to grips with a year’s worth of dirty laundry, and negotiating the masculine territory in the claustrophobic confines of the barge. Père Jules is initially suspicious, but when Juliette visits his cabin of curiosities, jammed with musical boxes, broken automata and bric-à-brac from his travels (including a jar that contains the hands of his best mate - ‘it’s the only thing I have left of him’) the tattooed old salt and the young bride form a touching alliance (a friendship that sends Jean into a frenzy). It’s Père Jules who rescues Juliette from Paris, where she’s washed up in a rundown hotel called The Anchor and working in a musical shop, wistfully listening to songs about sailors and water.
Juliette’s Depression-era Paris is initially intriguing, but it rapidly turns into a nightmare. Life is equally miserable for Jean on the barge. In an erotically charged scene the separated lovesick couple feverishly dream of each other, covered in darting spots from the film filters. It’s a beautiful example of Vigo’s inventiveness, a single instance of a treasure chest of images, from the beautiful underwater spectacle where Jean attempts to see a vision of his true love, to a witty little vignette where Père Jules runs his fingernail along the groove of a record and hears music playing. He bewilderingly repeats the gesture until the camera pans back and reveals the mischievous cabin boy playing the accordion. It’s a joyous flight of fancy, touchingly emblematic of the film itself.