SteelCity99 - wrote on 04/25/18
L'Atalante is one of the greatest films ever made. With that fact already stated, we may now proceed comfortably. Jean Vigo composed in 1934 a truly remarkable drama of impeccably moving proportions. If D.W. Griffith was the father of epic filmmaking, Sergei M. Eisenstein the author of editing, and F.W. Murnau the promoter of an innovative camera work, Jean Vigo is definitely the creator of a groundbreaking, ambitious photography. To call L'Atalante a romance film is an understatement; although it is true, it is not precise. It is a study of the human condition under an unsuccessful love relationship. Therefore, it could be vaguely referenced as the French response to Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The film signed the period of a cinema era where benign positivism and inspirational melodramas predominated. These projects were abundant in mastery thanks to their influential characteristics and their unique storytelling. Despite Jean Renoir being recognized as a new master of cinema during that period, Jean Vigo's only complete masterwork is a testament aimed directly to the heart that specifically tried to appeal to the sentiments of past decades, yet it has hold a modern universal validity and a noticeable, graphic poetry nowadays.
The film opens with a celebrated wedding between the gorgeously-looking Juliette and Jean, the owner of a ship. Juliette immediately accepts to live on his ship, on board of which is the scraggly second mate Jules and a cabin boy. After they come to Paris, Juliette grows increasingly bored and decides to sneak away in order to appreciate the nightlife of the city. This results in the anger of Jean, who impulsively leaves Juliette behind. However, his character will suffer a transformation since the repentance of his actions towards his wife leads him to a deep depression.
Due to the censorship measures of the 30s, the main focus of such simple story is not the suspense, or the thrilling wait for the finale. Fortunately, we already know how the film will end. It is all about the innocent naturalness, the great performances and landmark cinematography, not to mention the cathartic appeal it built (and still builds) with the viewer. We are introduced with what may seem typical characters: the curmudgeon and manipulative husband, the tender and naïve wife with romantic and escapist ambitions, the sloppy and often humorous supporting character, and a cabin boy of almost null, but complementary presence. The appeal is primordially derived from the portrayed romantic entanglement and the believability of the strictly human personages. Naturally, Jean Vigo attempted this by creating a purely human sense of humor based on the dialogues of the characters, the dailiness of the depicted events aboard the ship, the facial expressions and the constant personality contrasts.
Cinema was barely escaping its silent era, and the effort involved in the improvement of the technical aspects is noticeable, but very much appreciated. The film first offers us a great glimpse of a colonial France, constructing considerably long shots and achieving a visual balance of great effectiveness, and all of this with the purpose of emphasizing the atmospheric happiness of the antagonistic newlyweds. From there, we accept to aboard the ship with the couple in the same way Juliette does: it is like accepting a new adventure of unpredictable outcomes. The comedy (or tragedy) of the film is first encountered in the uncomfortably painful relationship between Jules and Juliette and the short time that had to pass so they could perform their first argument. Vigo depicted a marriage we could empathize with. He does not force us to adopt a particular side; the sequences are just shown without debating morality or what is right and what is wrong. An unreachable emotional escapism is the symbolic role given to the city of Paris. The worldly known place because of its romantic fame is transformed in the supporter of the separation between Jules and Juliette.
In order to average out the seemingly depressing atmosphere of the film, Jules assumes the comedic role of the careless, disinterested, patriotic and womanizer male of incredible stories of high doubtfulness that defines "consultation" as visiting a fortune teller just for seducing her. Just like the city of Paris is contrasted with the life on the ship, the ship itself contrasts the room of Jules. It is a space full of odd artifacts that, according to him, have several worldwide origins derived from unbelievable anecdotes. There is a particular scene where Jean encounters Juliette in the room of Jules and severely questions them both. Out of hatred, Jean ends up messing up the room and being angered to his wife, symbolizing the destruction of their emotional stability because of the intolerance towards external issues. His role may seem inappropriate especially when directing an essay of the human impulses and the childish attitudes that are originated from an impotence of empathy and romantic companionship. Nevertheless, the protagonist's remorse comes when the analysis of the past actions is executed, actions that were based on manipulation, tactlessness and jealousy. This forces him to jump into the river. The most obvious cinematic conclusion of such act may lead us to think that this idea involves suicide; nevertheless, Jean is plagued by the beautiful and "ballet-ish" image of his wife and starts to gather past moments of their lives in his head. Now, this is a true allegory! What aspects or features are the ones that define the escapist measures of a particular individual? It is understood that the purpose of this scene, which is undoubtedly the most outstanding and moving, works for achieving a merely artistic emphasis, besides obviously explaining more about the character and metaphorically inviting the viewers to reflection.
The ship is the motor of the psychology of the characters and the beautifully photographed Paris is the background for their melodramatically tumultuous relationship. However, the purposes of L'Atalante, although simple, are not as easy as they seem. It goes beyond a "chick flick" or a romantic tale of separation and redemption. It is a film that mirrors the impulsive acts committed by man when in front of a new situation or a new life stage. It serves the purpose of being an analytical masterpiece of delicate proportions. It is the remarkable direction and the unparalleled cinematography the ones that sweeten the plot with elements of humanism and an effective reflection. More than attempting to bring separated couples together, it is one of the most sublime French projects of the 30s, almost reaching the quality and universality of Renoir, and rivaling the scope of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), despite that the film clearly borrowed some plot elements from the original silent masterwork.