Wednesday, December 21, 2011

L'Atalante (1934)

Film is so beautiful when kept simple. Such is the case with Jean Vigo’s 1934 masterpiece L’Atalante. A French picture that is devoid of the flashy and extravagance of the usual Hollywood major motion picture, L’Atalante captures in its simple frame a story of common emotions within a young married couple struggling to adjust to the new aspects of life their companion brings with them as they enter a their new journey in life together. An unassuming film of its time, true even so for the casual, contemporary, leisure viewer, L’Atalante has come to be known as one of the finest films of all time internationally.

L’Atalante is a French drama about two newlyweds living on a canal barge struggling to accept the differences of each other, realizing that they are nothing without each other. Barge captain Jean (Jean Dasté) marries the young village girl Juliette (Dita Parlo) after hardly meeting and embark on Jean’s barge (named l’atalante) immediately after the ceremony. They leaving with such haste serves as a makeshift honeymoon and allows Jean to get back to work with his meager crew of Jules (Michel Simon), a salty old sailor that has seen the world, and a cabin boy. Jean and Juliette discover shortly that they are two very different people. Jean a straight to the point type of man worried about his work and not the cleanliness of his ship or his life. Juliette, on the other hand, is one with a romantic view of the world beyond the small village she had never left until this marriage, and is appalled by the living conditions on the barge. After arguments where Juliette was not able to see Paris, the city she dreamt of visiting, and flirting with the idea of being out on the town, Juliette slips out one evening, angering Jean who decides to leave his bride behind to get back to the canals. Apart Juliette learns the ugliness of the city, and Jean the melancholy of being without her loving support. Jules takes it upon himself to reunite the lost lovers, once again joined in loves embrace.

The film is poetically simple. With little plot or actions of any kind, the picture is driven by the emotions of the two main characters, so central to any man or woman. It is a story of relationships, love, and the discovery one has when he/she for the first time finds the less attractive sides of the one whom they fell in love with. Director Jean Vigo does not sugar coat anything, for doing so would have not helped the story which is very much down to earth. Things are well worn and rough, as in many cases the world is not exactly pretty. But more than that is the devastation they have of losing the person that becomes so much a part of them. Even though Juliette and Jean do not see eye to eye on many things about their lives, inside they are very important to each other and when they are separated out of anger they learn the true value of having one another. Mixed in this beautiful story of love is the humor and ever so original acting stiles of Michel Simon, a treasure of the European world of thespian arts.

Jean Vigo was only 29 years old at the time he directed L’Atalante. A child of the humblest beginnings, on the run with his parents before the death of his father, Vigo was a man that saw the world as an ugly place, yet filled with beauty in the simple joys of life. L’Atalante would only be his second major film he directed, his first being Zéro de conduite, a 1933 film banned by the French government shortly after its release until the end of WWII. He would not see the joys of this film either as it would be heavily edited down by distributors. Vigo was very ill while he directed L’Atalante with complications of tuberculosis, for which he would die a month after its release. It was said at times he so ill that he directed from a stretcher. Whatever his condition his body was in, his mind made up for it as he produced one of the world’s finest works for which he would never see get its due praise.

The picture’s stars were Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté, two very meager actors. Parlo was a German born actress who moved to France to spread her acting skill. Dasté was a veteran of the stage and still yet new at the film game. Both worked many longs years, with Parlo even trying and failing to find success in America, but they are both outshined by Michel Simon. Simon was given his own credit in big letters for his magnificence even though he was not the star. The movie was very much about Jean and Juliette, and nothing must be said that outshines that story, but Simon was a treasured actor in France for his absolute unique brand of character creation. Simon was not near the handsomest man, and he carried himself is such an odd manner, but he used it to create such interesting people. In this case his Jules character provided humor, along with a little disgust to spice up the salty old barge sailor. His acting is unforgettable, even if you don’t quite need him in the story, though in this case he was just the right amount of seasoning to the soup that was this film.

L’Atalante would be praised for its realistic poetry, loved by critics and audiences alike. To the casual movie watcher of today, it may come off as awkward or as just another weird old French film, but a connoisseur of cinema it is a masterpiece of storytelling. It is a film you melt into if you really allow yourself to enjoy it. As mentioned, when initially released distributors edited the 89 minute picture to a devastating length of only 65 minutes to make the film more profitable. It would not be until 1990 the original intended picture would be restored with negatives discovered in archives. Vigo’s directing helped style what would be known as the French New Wave filmmakers in the coming years. Through the years L’Atalante would make many top film lists internationally and is hailed as a classic by many. It leaves a legacy of one filmmaker gone well before his time, and as a film that was so simple and real, that it would stand the tests of movie history.

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