Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Louis Lefevre, Gilles Margaritis
Written by: Jean Vigo and Albert Riera, based on an original scenario by Jean Guinee
Directed by: Jean Vigo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 87
Date: 04/24/1934

L'Atalante (1934)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Livin' Barge

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jean Vigo's greatest (and longest) of his four films, the 89-minute L'Atalante is a deceptively simple love story done on assignment. But Vigo was a great poet of the cinema, and when he was given the story of a barge captain getting married and taking his wife down river, he saw extraordinary things hidden within. And he made an extraordinary film.

The story begins with a wedding, which occurs offscreen. First mate Père Jules (Michel Simon) and a dopey cabin boy (Louis Lefevre) run out of the church in their wedding finery to get their barge ready. Soon the married couple marches dutifully out of the church, followed by their friends and family, toward the docked barge. Before she can even change out of her wedding dress, the bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) finds herself on board and beginning her new life as a barge wife.

As the captain, Jean (Jean Daste), shoves off, Juliette climbs up top and walks up the length of the barge as it moves down river. Vigo and his cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who later shot On the Waterfront) keep her in frame with the river and the boat moving opposite her. And that's only the film's first breathtaking moment.

It takes Père Jules a little time to get used to the new passenger, but he melts when she uses him as a model while hemming her dress. He shows her his collection of gizmos from all the ports of the world, including a puppet, a record player, and a dead friend's hand kept in a jar. He even smokes a cigarette from his belly button. Vigo gets remarkable use out of the limited space on board the ship, especially Père Jules' overcrowded quarters filled with his collection of stray cats. Vigo makes the film feel both cramped and roomy at the same time.

Before long, Juliette gets cabin fever and longs to see Paris. A traveling salesman (Gilles Margaritis) helps persuade her to run off. Juliette goes window-shopping and finds herself enchanted by the moving figurines therein. But she soon finds the dark side of Paris, with its hungry denizens and thieves, unappetizing, and longs to return to the ship. Vigo shows Paris as just another version of the barge, both beautiful and sad.

Though L'Atalante is a love story, Père Jules becomes the center of the movie. It's he who accepts Juliette aboard the barge (rather than resisting her presence) and it's he who brings her back at the end. The actor Michel Simon, with his gorilla arms and mashed-potato face, was one of the greatest actors in all cinema (he can best be seen in Jean Renoir's La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning). Simon brings unexpected and unusual depth to his nothing-much character and hence adds beautiful weight to the entire piece. He also creates the only moments of magical realism, such as when he demonstrates a wrestling move with himself.

Perhaps the greatest scene, though, occurs with Juliette alone in a Paris hotel, and Jean alone on the barge. Vigo shows them in a dialogue-free sequence, alternately cutting from one to the other as they physically long for each other from their lonely beds. It's one of the most sensual scenes ever filmed.

Heartbreakingly, L'Atalante was butchered by its studio and Vigo died at age 29 just days after its unsuccessful release. The restored version, showing for a week at the Rafael, is the most complete version possible, but it's still not exactly as Vigo intended. He suggested a few changes from his deathbed that were never implemented. Nevertheless, it's an unquestioned masterpiece.

The Rafael is showing the complete Vigo, four films which run only a little less than three hours, including A Propos de Nice (1930), Taris (1931), and Zero for Conduct (1933), on Saturday and Sunday only. Even with this limited output, Vigo remains one of the cinema's great masters.

New Yorker's DVD, from 2003, comes with a short documentary, stills, and other stuff. In 2011, the Criterion Collection released the Complete Vigo on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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