Jean Vigo | 85 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | France / French | PG
The only feature-length work of director Jean Vigo (though Zéro de conduite just qualifies for AMPAS’s definition of feature-length, being 41 minutes) before he died tragically young at 29, L’Atalante has been acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.
It wasn’t always thus. It was not well received at first, leading to a tumultuous release history. Previews were so poor that the distributor cut 20 minutes and released it as Le chaland qui passe, the title of a popular song at the time, which was of course added to the soundtrack. It translates as The Passing Barge, which is a very apt moniker, at least. Nonetheless, it was still a commercial failure. In 1940 it was partially restored, and after World War 2 its reputation began to be rehabilitated by critics, including becoming a favourite of the French New Wave directors. It was more thoroughly restored in 1990, and then again in 2001, bringing the film as close to its original form as possible.
Personally, my view hews closer to the original reception. Reportedly a French distributor called it “a confused, incoherent, wilfully absurd, long, dull, commercially worthless film,” while critics called it “amateurish, self-indulgent and morbid.” OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but there are nuggets of truth in there.
It boils down to a relationship drama, about a couple so in love that they married in haste and now must learn how to live together and reaffirm their love in a new context. That story is told with some asides to barge life that seem (at least to me, on a first viewing) wholly unrelated, but in themselves are frequently more entertaining, thanks primarily to the performance of Michel Simon as the barge’s older first mate.
The romance is told in a way many describe as “poetic”, which seems to me to be something of a euphemism for “obliquely”. There are certainly poetic shots or sequences, like Jean’s dive where he sees a vision of Juliette, but the actual narrative is more social realist — low-key, and not spelt out or expounded upon for our benefit.
At one time, L’Atalante must have been visionary, groundbreaking, and revelatory to both critics and other filmmakers. Over eight decades on, however, whatever was then new has been subsumed by filmmaking in general; it has become familiar, or been better employed by filmmakers who were finessing rather than experimenting. L’Atalante may well be a significant work in the history of film, and for that reason may once have been considered one of the greats (and still is by some), but for me, now, it doesn’t have enough merit as a work in its own right.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.