Forming Love from Le Havre to Paris: L'Atalante (1934)

Arguably, L'Atalante is a film you hear about when people talk about pivotal works of cinema.  It is often mentioned alongside Citizen Kane, The Seventh Seal and Seven Samurai as the masterpieces of cinema.  However, unlike, the previously mentioned films, L'Atalante has been difficult to come by and often a film a person could only see at film school or an art house theater in urban areas.   Fortunately, Criterion, in a labor of love, has brought us the complete works of Jean Vigo, which includes his seminal work L'Atalante.  Upon watching the film, I feared from the get go that it would let me down as it is an incredibly loved movie and I was concerned the hype would be too much to justify the film.  Aside from some absolutely spectacular cinematography, this appeared to be the case.  Then as if by some force of magic, the movie instantly became perfect in a harmonious way.  The characters struggles, the allure of Paris and the simplicity of a voyage narrative all came together and I was hooked.  I am hear to testify the the perfection of L'Atalante and serve as yet another advocate to its place in film history.

L'Atalante is a surprisingly simple movie in regards to plot.  The film follows the captain of the ship L'Atalante Jean (Jean Daste) as he introduces his newly wedded wife Juliette (Dita Parlo) to ship live.  This lifestyle includes close contact with the veteran seamen and cat lover Jules (Michel Simon) and a wide-eyed young boy named Camelot (Gilles Margeritis).  Together the group is voyaging from Le Havre to Paris on some undefined business.  All seems content in the world of L'Atalante, particularly the relationship between Jean and Juliette, until Jean discovers Juliette having a rather informal and close conversation with Jules in his quarters.  This discovery leads Jean into a frenzied fit of jealousy as he distances himself from Juliette and assumes her to be cuckolding him at every opportunity she gets.  This tension reaches its highest point when Juliette and Jean visit a music club when Juliette is incessantly hit on by a street peddler.  Infuriated Juliette and Jean part ways, leaving Juliette broke and lost to roam the streets of Paris.  Distraught and disorganized she unsuccessfully attempts to find work.  Jean attends to things on the ship unsuccessfully, constantly longing for Juliette and seeing visions of her as he sinks down in the water of the river.  Jules realizes the dilemma occurring and attempts to soothe Jean's longing by playing music, however, this only exacerbates his desire for Juliette.  Finally, in an act of loyalty and friendship to Jean, Jules searches and finds Juliette in a music store and brings her back to Jean.  The film ends simply and poetically with the couple reunited.

The plot is short and the film is relatively realistic.  This makes sense given that L'Atalante is on the back end of the poetic realism movement in France; however, the film is anything but a exercise in poetic realism.  In fact, I could find little to do in regards to social criticism, minus passing class commentary.  Instead, the film felt like a transitory film between poetic realism and French New Wave cinema.  This may seem irrelevant, but in cases of transitory filmmaking, it is often lackluster or sloppily done.  L'Atalante executes its transactions perfectly and beautifully.  Examples of this occur throughout the film in pieces, whether it be the lengthy shot of Juliette walking across the ship dock or random jump cuts to kittens climbing about a phonograph.  To a casual viewer these moments will seem out of place, and justifiably so, because they are unconventional to the traditional narrative structure of the film.  To a cinephile, it makes one quickly realize the films influence of Truffaut and Godard, both who claim inspiration from the film.  However, this hybrid of poetic realism and New Wave hits its biggest stride when Jean is swimming through the river and longing for Juliette.  The film continually cuts to images of Juliette smiling as her visage fades in and out of the water in an oneiric illusion.  This dream sequence of sorts is neither the actuality of poetic realism nor the brash irrationality of New Wave.  It is, as stated before, a combination of the both, something that had never happened before in film and rarely has occurred since.  To me this transitory filming style  makes L'Atalante so brilliant, and if it is not this, then the story is so true and realized that it is still a brilliant landmark in movies.

This is certainly one of the highlights of Criterion's 2011 releases.  There is absolutely no reason why you should not own a copy of this on bluray.  It is the French equivalent of Citizen Kane and a corner stone in the history of film.

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