Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Vigo and Albert Riéra (writers, based on an original scenario by Jean Guinée),
Jean Vigo (director) L’Atalante(Le Chaland qui passe) / 1934
Vigo’s wonderful film L’Atalante would
be his first full-length film, and his last. Because of the late, wet nights he
worked filming it, he soon after developed a fever (he had already been
suffering from tuberculosis) and died at the age of 29. Moreover, he had fought
deep battles with the Gaumont Film Company who were to distribute it. And since
he was too ill to cut the final version, the company re-edited it severely and
eventually reedited it down to 65 minutes.
The version Criterion now presents is a
semi-restored original, which they state in the credits, is as close to the
original as possible.
If the film was failure at the time of
its release, today it is recognized as a masterwork. And watching it this
morning, I was touched by its gentle simplicities.
The film has one of the least complex
plots possible. A young couple, Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté) are
married in a small river town, unforgettably filmed by Vigo, and wind their
way, wedding party behind them, to Jean’s barge waiting along the river bank.
To greet them aboard is John’s assistant, Père Jules (the always memorable
Michel Simon) and the oafish cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre).
Off the couple go, eventually arriving in
Paris, where Jean takes Juliette to a workman’s bar, and where she is greeted
with great fanfare by a local peddler (Gilles Margaritis), who demands she
dance with him in an almost surreal series of events that ends when her jealous
husband drags her back to the barge.
having never traveled out of her home village, Juliette sneaks out again, staring
with wonderment into shop windows and simply enjoying the sites. When she
attempts to return to her husband and the barge, she realizes that he, having
discovered her absence, has taken off for the barge’s next destination without
she attempts to buy a train ticket to that location, her purse is stolen, and
she is left with no choice but look for work in order to survive.
Meanwhile, Jean, regretting his
decision, sinks into a funk, trying desperately to see her again, in the manner
she claims she has seen him before, in a bucket of water; when that doesn’t
work he jumps into the water to imagine his lover swimming there.
In danger of Jean losing his job, Jules
testifies for his worthiness to the management and goes back in search of
Juliette, who he finds, returning her to the barge and into the arms of her now
Yet, to repeat the old adage, the
importance of this work is not in the story but in the details. At one point,
as she visits Jules room on the barge, he entertains her with a short but
charming puppet show, also sharing with her his “cabinet of curiosities,” which
includes strange objects he has picked up throughout the world, as well as his tattoos.
Immediately after the barge anchors on the
Seine, he and the cabin boy take off to see a fortuneteller, while Jean, who
has intended to take Juliette for a stroll through the city, is forced to wait
for their return.
throughout, Vigo maintains an erotic energy as the two young lovers explore one
other and their changed lives. Juliette must get used to the limited space atop
and within the barge. A closet of dirty clothes is immediately emptied by
Juliette as she cleans not only Jean’s wardrobe but the resistant Jules’. The
casual meals cooked by Jules are now more formal events overseen by Jean’s new
wife. Jules becomes jealous, Juliette restless, and Jean possessive.
Maurice Jaubert’s lively musical score
accompanies all, enlivening an otherwise quiet film with a lack of serious
dialogue. These are not talkative beings, and Simon plays, as usual, a nearly
impossible to comprehend character. To make certain that the audience could
properly hear him, Vigo made Simon repeat each question asked of him before he
But it is just that simplicity,
punctuated by the whimsical scenes with the peddler, Jules’ explanation of his
tiny museum, and Jean’s attempt to find the face of his lover in the waters
upon which he earns his living that help to make this film so very loveable. If
living on a barge represents a strange drifting life, nobody quite captured it
so perfectly until Lasse Hallström’s 2000 film, Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche as a small-town chocolatier and
Johnny Depp as her loving “river rat.”