L’Atalante, made in 1934 by French director Jean Vigo, is a film which begs to be seen in a decent print on a large screen, since it is, first and foremost, a film of striking images. It’s the only feature made by Vigo, who had previously made two documentaries and a now-famous short, Zero For Conduct, and who died of tuberculosis at the age of 29, a few months after L’Atalante appeared.
L’Atalante is the name of a river barge and the film’s main characters are its skipper Jean (Jean Dasté), his new bride Juliette (the eternally adorable Dita Parlo, who was also the farm wife in Renoir’s 1937 film, Grand Illusion), and his irascible first mate Jules (Michel Simon). There’s little plot to speak of — the young lovers quarrel and reconcile — but that doesn’t really matter. What’s memorable about L’Atalante is its combination of visual lyricism — the almost ghostly river scenes and hallucinatory sequences expressing the early heat of the lovers’ union and then the drowning feeling of Jean’s despair — with an improvisational feel, especially when dealing with the moody Jules.
Part child and part ape, Jules seems alternately a drunken clown, a threatening id-monster and a lonely creature full of pathos and tall tales, larger than life. It’s as though Vigo had to invent a new, alert style to contain this grotesque clown with his huge, hunched-over bulk.
In any event, with its sexual frankness, documentary views of Paris and lurching story line, L’Atalante seems very much like the first French New Wave film, even though it would take another 25 years for the movement to properly begin. It’s a film that can still impress and move us. Innovative and influential, it has definite historic interest — though its main appeal remains its sad beauty, heightened by the knowledge that its creator never had a chance to follow it up.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].