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Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
"L'Atalante" (1934) is a French-language masterpiece of world cinema that generally ranks high on most lists of all-time greatest moviesfor example, it came in 15th in the "Sight & Sound" 2002 Critics' Poll. In April, 2003, New Yorker released a DVD version of "L'Atalante" based on the 2001 restoration of the film. I found the new DVD version to be a big improvement over the videotape version I've watched several times over the last few years.
On the surface, "L'Atalante" tells a wispy little love story in a seemingly down-to-earth way. Yet, the film is subtle and elliptical, and thoughtful viewers will find repeated viewings well worthwhile. The movie is poetic and lyrical, and I find its sequences of images and music to be enchanting. But while there's romance and eroticism in the film, this is tempered with melancholy, giving everything a bittersweet feeling. I see "L'Atalante" as a one-of-a-kind movie, and that is part of its charm.
"L'Atalante" chronicles the early days of a marriage in which the newlyweds love each other, but they have their share of problems. Juliette, the attractive young wife, had never even been outside her village before she got married. Jean, the husband, operates a river barge called the "Atalante," which is owned by a big company. He also lives aboard the barge, along with his maladroit two-man crew and a bunch of cats.
The film opens around the time Juliette and Jean exit the church after getting married, and in their wedding clothes they go directly to the "Atalante" and cast off. There's a beautiful shot of the bride in her white wedding dress, walking the deck of her new home as it glides through the water. But soon Juliette finds herself struggling to come to terms with the disorderly lifestyle of Jean and his crew. Life aboard the cramped barge is tedious, and she yearns to see a big city.
Eventually, the "Atalante" docks in Paris, and Jean takes his new bride ashore. Juliette is having a good time, but then a street vendor becomes smitten with her, and her controlling husband takes her back to the barge. But Juliette still longs to see more of the big city, and the strong-willed young bride sneaks out and goes into central Paris on her own. When Jean discovers she is not on the barge, he goes into a snit and abandons her to fend for herself in the city while he sails the "Atalante" to Le Havre.
I really like the way Dita Parlo plays the young wife in "L'Atalante." (Parlo's fame derives from this role and her portrayal of the farm woman in "Grand Illusion.") Also, I think the little-known Jean Dasté is fine as the somewhat unsympathetic young husband. But I believe the most memorable character in the film is the uncouth old first mate Jules, played by Michel Simon. (Simon is most famous for his starring role in "Boudu Saved From Drowning.") It's not too surprising that Jules has a photo of a casually posed naked woman on display in his cabin, but it's bizarre that he keeps a deceased friend's hands preserved in a jar. Jules is massive in size, and his behavior towards the young bride seems to me to be sometimes lecherousat one point, I thought he might be on the verge of assaulting her.
For me, the magic of "L'Atalante" lies primarily in its visual images, and two of its sequences are unforgettable. The first is when Jean dives into the river because Juliette has told him you can see the one you love there. The images of him swimming underwater and seeing visions of her in her wedding dress are among the most romantic in all of cinema. The second occurs while Jean and Juliette are separated, and he is in bed on the barge at the same time she is in bed in a hotel. Each yearns for the other, and images of the two are intercut in a way that suggests they achieve some sort of mystical sexual union. To me, this is one of the most erotic sequences in all of cinema.
A young French genius named Jean Vigo was the main creative force behind "L'Atalante," and it was his first and only feature-length film. Shortly after the movie's release, Vigo died at age 29 from complications of tuberculosis. But based on this film and his short movie "Zero for Conduct" (1933), he still holds a place in cinema history as a famous and influential filmmaker.
The "L'Atalante" DVD provides no commentary track and is a little skimpy on bonus materials, which I've listed below. The box contains the words "Featurette: The Making of L'Atalante," and this turns out to be a reasonably interesting 20-minute appreciation of the movie by two film historians, Annette Insdorf and Bernard Eisenschitz. But the most important thing about the DVD is that it provides picture and sound quality that, considering the age of the movie, are really quite good, and I think every cinephile will want to own it.
Special Features of the DVD:
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