Another month, another fine film discovery thanks to my list of 12 Classics for 2016 and the Blind Spot Challenge. My selection this time was Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, the simple and engaging story of newlyweds Jean and Juliette (Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo) starting their life together on a barge. This film really captures the various, sometimes volatile ways a new couple get to know each other. Jean and Juliette are in love but also surprise each other with previously unseen tempers and insecurities, and as the barge and their new union moves along they act out of boredom, rebellion, desperation, and curiosity. Married life is ordinary, even disappointing, much like the soaked, droopy bouquet that Jean’s fellow sailors fish out of the canal and give Juliette as she’s welcomed to the barge. Aboard L’Atalante there’s little privacy for the newlyweds, who share the cramped space with lots of cats, the eccentric and loud Père Jules (Michel Simon) and cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre). Juliette tackles the mountain of dirty laundry with the zeal of a new housewife, but soon becomes frustrated with this world that seems smaller than the tiny village she escaped. Things are inconvenient, the adjustments aren’t always smooth or romantic, and eventually, between Juliette’s desire to see more of the world and Jean’s haste and hurt feelings, the couple are separated. Their time apart is miserable, marked by longing (shown in surprisingly erotic imagery for that era), danger (Juliette is mugged) and deep depression (Jean almost loses both will to live and command of his barge).
These ups and downs are depicted with poetic and playful images. Overhead camera emphasizes the barge’s tight spaces, long slow foggy shots of the barge chugging through canals and locks support the monotony Juliette feels, and the movie’s overall sweetness and its faith in love is captured in Juliette’s insistence that she foresaw Jean’s face in the water, an idea he initially makes fun of, but later takes to extremes as he searches for any sign his wife might return to him.
Père Jules is a great character, a grizzled, tattooed old sailor who seems like he walked in from a horror movie, but is really a gentle giant. He beams as he shows Juliette the treasures of his lifetime spent at sea: the puppet from Caracas, the fan from Japan, wind-up musical contraptions and the gramophone he hopes to fix (also his friend’s hands in a jar). There’s a great scene where Jules runs his finger around one of his records and is astounded to hear music stop and start in sync with his hand. It turns out he’s being pranked by the cabin boy playing his accordion, but for a moment he and we believe it’s possible. Simple, entrancing fun depending on the belief that there’s magic in life’s most ordinary settings.