L'Atalante

(1934)
   Film. The last film directed by Jean Vigo and the only feature-length film Vigo ever made, L'Atalante is the story of Jean and Juliette, played by Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo. The two are young newlyweds who live on a boat called l'Atalante with a man named Le Père Jules, played by Michel Simon, and Jules's son, played by Louis Lefebvre. L'Atalante is a sort of floating utopia, where the two lovers can exist outside the confines of the rest of the world untouched, seemingly, by greed, crass materialism, and the violence of everyday life. Jean is perfectly content with this existence. However, Juliette bores of it after a while and dreams of life in the city. Eventually, she leaves Jean and the boat for life in Paris. Devastated by Juliette's departure, Jean falls into a nearly catatonic depression. At the same time, Père Jules sets out to find Juliette, who discovers that Paris is perhaps not what she expected and longs to return to l'Atalante. The two are ultimately reunited.
   The film is known not only for its tragic romance narrative, but also for the strong performances of the actors, for the intensity with which it conveys emotion, and for Boris Kaufman's dreamlike cinematography, which lays somewhere between realism and surrealism. Many film scholars refer to L 'Atalante as a visual poem, so intense are the images the camera presents. The film, which many regard as one of the greatest films ever made, has ties to Le Réalisme poétique, or poetic realism, although not officially classified as part of that wave. It shares with those films the play with light and dark, the poetic quality of its images, the meditation on love and human interaction, as well as a certain degree of pessimism regarding the human condition.
   L 'Atalante nearly never was. Vigo was hired by Gaumont to make the film, which seems puzzling since he was not a commercially oriented director. However, he agreed to make the film but modified it significantly from the popular melodrama Gaumont had intended. Unhappy with the final film, Gaumont reedited it in a move that many film scholars have characterized as butchering it. They also changed the title, releasing it as Le Chaland qui passe, and adding a popular song to the narrative. The Gaumont version was a disaster. Vigo died several weeks after finishing the film. Since his death efforts have been made to undo what Gaumont did to the film, but it has not, to date, been restored to its original form. Nonetheless, the film, in re-reedited form, is considered by most critics to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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