Directed by Jean Vigo, France, 1934
An art history buff once told me that the most important thing about the Venus de Milo is that it is centuries older than comparable sculptures. L’Atalante is similar. Indeed the film could have been released in 1960 as a French New Wave film, but if it were released today (in color of course), it would be a popular film now. Like the famous Venus, it also only existed in an incomplete version for decades, the result of an over-zealous studio executive’s editing of Vigo’s original vision. The version that Francois Truffaut saw as a boy in the 1940’s, which he claimed inspired him more than any film he had seen up until that point, was this chopped up version.
Thankfully we have the complete version of the film today, and the similarities to New Wave or even modern romantic comedies are numerous. Unlike many romances of the time (especially Hollywood ones), there are no lingering close-up shots or melodramatic dialogue. For the majority of the film, the main romance is portrayed in a matter-of-fact way, and the tension in the story comes not from melodramatic crescendos, but from its believability.
The story is fairly basic. The captain of a river barge (Jean Daste), marries a country girl who dreams of visiting the big city (Dita Parlo). They live together on the barge along with two other crew members, one of whom, Pere Jules (Michel Simon) has a troublesome herd of cats and provides a good deal of the film’s comic relief. They have more ups than downs until the captain, in a moment of jealous foolishness, makes a enormous mistake. The rest of the film proceeds from there.
Vigo is a tragic figure in cinema history. Battling tuberculosis during the filming of L’Atalante, he died only a few month after it was released at age 29. It was only his second film, and what the rest of his career would have been like we can only speculate upon. Would he have successfully defended L’Atalante against the studio’s chop job? Would he have been ostracized like Orson Welles was after he made the similarly innovative Citizen Kane (1941)? Or would he have become a legendary director on par with his contemporary, the great Jean Renoir? What he did create is an enduring and surprisingly modern film.
(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe