Jean Vigo's poetic tale centers on Jean (Daste), captain of the barge L'Atalante, who marries Juliette (Parlo), a young woman from the country. (The early scenes leading up to and including their wedding are marvelous.) Bored with life on the barge, Juliette longs to see the bright lights
of Paris. Jean finally gives in to his wife's request and takes her to a Paris cabaret, where a peddler flirts with the young woman. The next day, an angry and jealous Jean leaves the ship without his wife. She is visited by the peddler, who entertains her and then is promptly thrown off the barge
upon Jean's return. Juliette then sneaks off to Paris, and Jean purposefully sets sail without her, leaving his penniless wife to take a job in town. The film then concentrates on the lovers' pain before L'Atalante again sails on.
Vigo made only four films (A PROPOS DE NICE, TARIS CHAMPION DE NATATION, ZERO DE CONDUITE, and L'ATALANTE) before his untimely death at age 29. In L'ATALANTE, he treats his simple story both realistically and surrealistically, combining and contrasting styles. Thus, in one scene, Jean dives into
the water and sees an image of a smiling Juliette swimming in her wedding gown; in another, a seaman played by Michel Simon (in possibly the greatest role of his distinguished career) displays his odd collection of curios, including a pair of severed hands in a jar. (Surrealist poet Jacques
Prevert and his brother, filmmaker Pierre, also make cameo appearances.) L'ATALANTE was poorly received at its initial 1934 screening, prompting its distributors to insert a popular song and re-edit nearly all the scenes. The result was a box-office disaster, and three weeks later Vigo was dead.
Years later, a complete version was finally constructed thanks to the Cinematheque Francais and Henri Langlois. Less iconoclastic and experimental than his earlier films, L'ATALANTE is nonetheless brilliantly idiosyncratic and insightful, the warmest film of this great director's career.
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