L’Atalante (1934) – review by Roger Ebert
To live happily
ever after with the one you love, you must be able to live with them at all. It
is not that simple. Little problems must be worked out. She does not like cats
on the table while she is eating. He has a closet filled with a year’s dirty
laundry. She treasures their private moments together. He treasures his best
friend, who is bearded and garrulous and arrives at meals in an undershirt. She
wants to see
Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante”
(1934) tells such a love story. It is on many lists of the greatest films, a
distinction that obscures how down to earth it is, how direct in its story of a
new marriage off to a shaky start. The French director Francois Truffaut fell
in love with it one Saturday afternoon in 1946, when he was 14: “When I entered
the theater, I didn’t even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately
overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his work.” Hearing a critic attack another
movie because “it smells like dirty feet,” Truffaut considered that a
compliment, and thought of
The film premiered
to polite responses in
In outline, “L’Atalante”
seems a simple story. It begins with the marriage of a young barge captain
named Jean and a village girl named Juliette “who always had to do things
differently.” There is no wedding feast. Still wearing her wedding dress, she
holds to a boom and swings on board the barge, to begin life not only with her
husband but also with his massive and shambling friend Jules, a sailor who has
Juliette makes the
best of her situation. When the cat has kittens in her bed, she strips the
sheets over the objections of Jules, who sees no need for such fastidiousness.
One night on the radio she hears the magic words, “This is
These details fail to evoke the enchanted quality of “L’Atalante,” which is not about what lovers do, but about how they feel—how tender they are, how sensitive and foolish. The film is shot in a poetic way that sees them as the figures in a myth; Atalante is not only the barge name but the name of a Greek goddess who, says Brewer’s Dictionary, “being very swift of foot, refused to marry unless the suitor should first defeat her in a race.” Can it be that Jean and Juliette were racing away from one another, and he did a better job of it?
The movie’s effect comes through the way it evokes specific moments in the life of the young couple, rather than tying them to a plot. They will be the moments that memory illuminates 50 years from now, when everything else has grown vague. Consider their first morning, as the waking couple is serenaded by an accordion and a bargeman’s song. The argument over the laundry. An extraordinary moment when old Jules and Juliette are alone in the cabin, and he seems almost ready to assault her, but she distracts him with the dress she is making, and gets him to model it. And how her unexpected cheerfulness (did she even sense any danger?) inspires him to show her the treasures of his life, climaxing with a jar that contains the hands of his best friend (“all that is left of him”).
There is a sequence in a canalside bistro where a magician flirts with her, tempts her with pretty scarves, dances with her and enrages Jules. The man paints word pictures of Paris that echo in her imagination until she must go see the city for herself—not to be disloyal to Jean, but because she is like a little girl who cannot help herself.
Their separation is
so painful for them both. Her early joy turns into fear; her purse is stolen,
hawk-faced men make lewd suggestions, the city is no longer magical. Jean holds
his head in anguish. And then
After Jean climbs back on board, the old man and the cabin boy try to cheer him with music, but he wanders off and, in a heartbreaking shot, embraces a block of ice as if it is his love.
Juliette is played by Dita Parlo, a legendary Berlin-born actress who made 22 films between 1928 and 1939, and one more in 1965. Her other famous role was as the farm woman who takes in the escaped convicts in Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (1937). Madonna’s book Sex was inspired, she said, by Parlo in “L’Atalante.” Garboesque in the pale refinement of her face, she seems too elegant to be an untraveled country girl, but that quality works when it is set beside Michel Simon’s crusty old Jules.
Simon, not yet 40
when the film was made, looks 60, weathered by salt air and pickled in seaport
saloons. Inspired by the sight of the two young lovers kissing, he has his best
moment when he demonstrates how he can wrestle, too—and grapples with himself
on the deck, while
The movie’s look is