Editor: Marinos Sklavounakis
With “L’Atalante” Jean Vigo films a simple down to earth love story. It begins with a marriage of a barge captain named Jean with a village girl named Juliette. The marriage is performed without a feast and the couple gets onto the barge to begin its life. Jules’ friend also lives inside the barge a cabin boy and at least 6 cats. Juliette doesn’t seem to like life at the barge, while Jean is jealous of the things she does and do not include him. Later on they split for a while to reunite, having a hard time until they get back together again.
The film’s plot seems short but in a peculiar way contains everything – the whole world: love, work, play, dreams, adventure, pain and reconciliation while at the same time it discretely contains birth and death. No matter how one tries to describe the plot it would not be possible to do so precisely, because the plot is not in what the characters do but in what they feel.
Jean knows that he is in love but is ignorant of the practical aspects of their relation. He cannot identify either with Juliette’s needs or with what troubles her. Besides how can a young man know what he really desires? To live happily with someone you love is not so simple. Small problems have to be solved. She doesn’t want cats to climb on the dinner table while they’re eating. He has his closet full of old dirty clothes. She wants to see Paris and he is worried for his job.
The movie is about two lovers who seek greater things but in the end return to each other. The movie ends optimistically. Everyone is happy back to the ship but I doubt if we witnessed their final quarrel. “L’Atalante” is a movie showing there are no fairy-tale affairs. To live happily with someone you must first learn how to co-exist with someone. Love and marriage are never easy and problems immediately appear. Personally I believe in love but human foibles rarely allow love to last a lifetime. Also, I can’t help but contemplate on the barge’s name – Atalanta – and I consider the relevant myth of Atalanta who didn’t want to get married unless her future fiancé defeated her in a race.
Another element that makes “L’Atalante” so special is the extraordinary character of Jules. He outshines at the scene where he shows his tattoos and his beloved souvenirs from his journeys. The scene climaxes with a vase containing the hands of his beloved friend. There is also a moment in the film where Juliette says to Jean: I saw you in the water long before I met you. In a desperate moment Jean plunges in the cold water and Juliette’s smiling face transforms the water scene to one of the best in cinematography.
“L’Atalante” took four months to film. The weather conditions on site where severe and the director’s tuberculosis worsened. He worked on the film a short time before the editing was finished and then left for warmer climates to allow for his health to ameliorate.
The final cut of the film was accomplished in April 1934, a little before Vigo died at the age of 29. For many years the movie was distributed in shorter versions up to 65 minutes and hadn’t been restored to its original 89 minutes until 1990. The movie’s cinematographer was Boris Kaufman, who was the brother of Dziga Vertov and naturally one can see the Russian avant-garde flavor during the on-location shots, the continuous search for new view angles.
“L’Atalante” is a masterpiece and many consider it as the most erotic film. You can think of the movie as the testament of a person who knew he was about to die and wanted to saturate its every angle with love for humanity.