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Jean Vigo died in 1934 only a few months after finishing L'Atalante. In his brief career, he made only two films, but their mark on the history of the film runs deep: thirty years ago they caused a small revolution, and today, the directors of the Nouvelle Vague look back with admiration at Zero de Conduite and L'Atalante, for they anticipate (and in many ways supersede) modern French attempts to create a vivid sense of milieu on the screen.
L'Atalante is the name of a river barge that plies the internal waterways of France; it becomes a self-sufficient universe as Vigo focusses his attention on object after object, making every sequence almost a tactile experience. Most of the action occurs below deck in small, confined staterooms filled with the bric-a-brac that the four passengers have brought with them. Each room exudes its own atmosphere, the personal odor of its occupant.
We enter these rooms through the hatchway; the camera hovers overhead like a voyeur, and the four walls vibrate with a new personality. The most fascinating of the four passengers is Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a crusty old naval Caliban who exists totally on a physical level. During one memorable scene he shows the captain's young wife, Juliette (Dita Parle), the souvenirs from his voyages to the South Seas: horns and masks, beads and three satanic cats that jump without warning and perch on Pere Jules' shoulders.
Juliette has just left her country home to marry the captain (Jean Daste), moving from one narrow atmosphere to another. Pere Jules' room, though the most cluttered, suggests wide horizons and exotic places to the innocent young wife, just as Pere Jules, though subhuman, represents the furthest reaches of human experience, particularly on a sensual level. He enchants her with his stories, and then wrestles here roughly into bed. The cats leap about hysterically.
As the film continues, Vigo enshrouds the ship in myth. The fundamental mysteries of weather (deep, all enveloping fogs) and sex impinge on every moment. When Juliette deserts the ship, the captain, dives into the sea searching for a vision of her. The camera follows him underwater where he sees her in her bridal gown.
At last Juliette returns, after a week on the land during which she met only mountebanks, cripples and beggars. Like Persephone coming back from the underworld, she rejoins the crew of L'Atalante; she has come to her own milieu, which now seems more real, larger and more natural than the mist-hidden landscape of the riverbanks that glide so swiftly by.
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