An Appreciation – L’Atalante
Jean senses this, and immediately acts out in aggression and jealousy. I wonder how Jean and Juliette’s relationship first started—how they met and grew to love each other. It’s clear in the film that they are still trying to get used to each other, to know the other person’s quirks and eccentricities. Jean is certainly resistant to Juliette’s adventurous spirit at first. He tries to restrain her from listening to the radio about news in Paris, a place she has never been. When he catches her in Jules’s cabin, he throws a tantrum and destroys everything in the room, smashing Jules’s souvenirs and breaking his plates. When they finally arrive in Paris, Jean is unwilling to leave the barge unattended, thus preventing them from going on the mainland. And when they do finally step ashore and visit a nightclub, a street peddler’s flirtations grab Juliette’s attention, causing Jean’s jealousy to heighten to the point of starting a scuffle. But overstating these negative actions would be putting Jean in to a disingenuous light. He’s not a monster, he is not a bad person, and he never mistreats Juliette. It seems to me that being this is the first time he’s ever been in this kind of relationship, he doesn’t know how to handle his feelings. We can see that he sincerely loves Juliette, and that she loves him, but their situation is one that is foreign to both of them, and neither know how to really work with it.
And that is why Juliette decides to run away from the barge and visit Paris on her own. Bored from her time spent doing nothing on the ship, Juliette yearns to see the city lights and live amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. When she realizes that may not happen anytime soon with Jean, she goes at it alone, which is completely understandable. Who wouldn’t want to see and explore Paris if they had a chance? She comes from a small town, and when she first arrives, the culture shock is almost overwhelming. This is a new and exciting experience for her, but one that quickly changes in tone. What starts out as romantic adventure soon turns into a harsh dose of reality. Juliette soon realizes that Paris has a dark side, contrasting her optimistic view of it. We see her walking along dark alleys, being alone and not knowing where to go. At one point, she even has her purse snatched. When she tries to return to the barge, she finds it gone, Jean casting off upset that she left them. The final act of the movie has our two lovers separated, with us questioning whether or not either of them feels strong enough to try their romance one more time.
There are two scenes that stick out immediately after seeing the film. Two moments that inhabit such artistry, they fill me up with such an emotional catharsis that I find myself moved not only from the times I see them, but from even thinking about them as well. The first scene happens after both Jean and Juliette have separated from one another. In an earlier scene, Juliette describes to Jean that, if he were to immerse himself in to water, he can see his true love. Jean at first disregards this myth, but after being away and missing her for quite some time, he desperately flings himself into the river, swimming around in the cold dark water. In one of the most beautiful moments in any movie, we see Jean seeing the superimposed image of Juliette, literally dancing in the water, and dissolving to her smiling face looking back at him. It’s almost a ghostly kind of scene, but composed and put together with such warmth and care that it’s hard not to feel for these two and want them to get back together. We can sense how much he misses her and how much he wants to see her again. Set to a simple but effective musical score, this moment is a heartbreaking piece of filmmaking.
Couple that with the scene that follows immediately after. Eroticism has been in film for as long as the cinema has existed, but very few handled it in the way that Vigo presents it here. In fact, it’s quite the accomplishment that Vigo was able to display such an erotic moment between Jean and Juliette, and not even have them in the same place. Instead, they are completely separate, lying in two different beds in two different rooms. And yet, they are so emotionally connected that they are together psychologically instead of physically. The fantasy-like tone works incredible well, as both Jean and Juliette dream of each other behind a veil of shadows and light. What makes this scene so special is that Vigo is less interested in the eroticism of the flesh and more about the eroticism of the heart. It’s not about the physical act of making love, but the idea and desire for these two people to be together. With that in mind, I find this scene to be much more effective in expressing the passion that the two lovers share. Lesser films would rely on the physical act of lovemaking to present these feelings; Vigo argues that that doesn’t need to be a requirement.
I’ve written an entire essay describing the reasons why I love L’Atalante so much, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. This truly is one of those movies that is difficult to describe—in all of its tenderness, delicacy, sweetness and love. It is a film that must be experienced firsthand. From the performances by all the actors, to the music, and even the cinematography by Boris Kaufman, there is nothing in the film that doesn’t feel like it’s exactly where it should be. It would go on to influence countless filmmakers, most notably Francois Truffaut, who would sing its praises. Tragically, soon after its initial release the film would be cut by over twenty minutes, and only within the last few decades would it emerge in its completely restored form. A recent Criterion Collection DVD release not only has the film in its best quality so far, but also contains Vigo’s short films A propos de Nice (1930), Taris (1931), and Zero de Conduite (1933) all on one disk. In less than three hours, one can see the entirety of Vigo’s career. It’s interesting to think what his other films would have been like if he was able to keep going, but what he left behind was certainly a special work of art.