One of the most critically beloved films of all time, and certainly one of the crowning achievements of early (if not all) French cinema, L'Atalante retains a timelessness that renders it still – and likely forever – vital. Directed by Jean Vigo immediately prior to his death at the age of 29 and released in 1934, it has stirred and influenced legions of filmmakers (not to mention viewers), many of whom have lovingly referenced it in their own works: François Truffaut especially coveted it, considering it nothing short of a masterpiece and a defining film of his teenage years, nodding to it in several of his own films; Bernardo Bertolucci inserted a brief reference in Last Tango in Paris; more recently, both Léos Carax (in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and Jean-Luc Godard (in Eloge de l'amour) have alluded to it.
Vigo's entire filmography consists of four films: three shorts, A Propos de Nice (1930), Taris (1931), and Zero de conduite (1933), and the feature length L'Atalante (1934). This output and its stunning promise – as well as Vigo's legendary health struggles which culminated in his death just after L'Atalante's release – prompted the advent of the Prix Jean Vigo in 1951, an annual award specifically geared to acknowledge novel filmmakers for both short and feature films (it should be noted that Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were awarded the prize in its first decade). That the films bestowed the Vigo are not necessarily deemed perfect – the prize is more concerned with potential and promise, with spirit – is certainly applicable and wholly appropriate to Vigo and specifically to L'Atalante itself. It is a film that flirts with contradiction yet remarkably achieves a synthesis and a distinctive movement: grounded, yet punctuated with moments of sublime lyricism bordering on the surreal; knowing and earnestly naive; technically prescient in some respects but greatly unpolished; narratively conservative, yet boasting one of the more charged and lovely pieces of eroticism (through editing and suggestion, not explicitness, although incredibly frank for its day) ever committed to celluloid.
For a film that tells the essentially simple story of a newly married couple that loses each other, regrets, and ultimately reunites, L'Atalante has certainly had a complicated history. Vigo was apparently not terribly enthused with the scenario he was given from production company Gaumont-Franco-Film Aubert (now Gaumont) by Jean Guinée, and Gaumont was taking a calculated risk with Vigo (his Zero de conduite, a frontal critique of power and an insurrection at a boy's school, had been banned in France outright and would continue to be so until 1945). Vigo began production, already ill with tuberculosis, and shot through the winter of 1934 (reportedly so ill toward the end he directed from a stretcher). Upon completion of principal photography, Vigo's declining health was such that he was bedridden and could not edit the film himself; although he retained some input, the hands of others ultimately sculpted it. Upon initial release, the producers were so displeased with the final product that they commissioned further cuts and changes. It was reintroduced to theaters in what is now referred to as the Le Chaland qui passe version, noted for its cynical inclusion of the titular, then popular song, and reportedly bore little resemblance to the "original" (which would ultimately become a bone of contention itself in later years). What survived as L'Atalante for decades was clearly not Vigo's intended film – that it remained a critical darling prior to its eventual restoration in 1990 can only be described as testament to Vigo's vision, albeit a butchered one.
Reassembled and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990, the restored version of L'Atalante was stated to be closer to what Vigo had envisioned (as the liner notes to the DVD state, it was widely considered by historians and critics to be successful in that endeavor; not "perfect" but "ideal," since a fully realized original never actually physically existed). This 1990 version was released by New Yorker Video on videocassette. Further complicating L'Atalante's history, another restoration was performed in 2001, which omitted and/or altered certain scenes (albeit briefly) found in previous incarnations (e.g., the wrestling sequence with Pére Jules, which was superimposed to make it appear as though he were wrestling himself and Jean's kissing the block of ice), once again in the interest of being "faithful" to what was originally intended. This 2001 restoration is the one utilized for the DVD release, again by New Yorker, and the controversy will probably not stop here.
To the film itself: based on a premise which can accurately be described as slight, L'Atalante begins immediately following the wedding ceremony of Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo). A procession leads to the barge L'Atalante, in which Jean is the skipper, aided by the salty, world-wise first mate "Pére" Jules (Michel Simon). After being unceremoniously swung on deck by a post from the shore, Juliette quickly surmises the celebration is over: Jean has already donned his work clothes and is preparing the ship for journey, and Juliette is being referred to as "boss lady." In a beautifully composed shot, Juliette is seen walking across the top of the moving barge, steady yet somehow unsure, her appearance in stark, deliberate contrast to the rest of the frame. Below deck, tensions soon begin to rise – Jean, it seems, is not overly concerned with laundry, nor is he really bothered by the fact that one of Jules' beloved cats (of which there are many on board) has given birth to her litter on their connubial bed. Jean is also perfectly content with his life on the barge; Juliette, however, soon grows disillusioned and is not pleased with what she foresees as her monotonous future. (Jean informs her that the barge will enable her to "see the world." "River banks," she replies.) Jules, sensing the increasing strain, laments that the young couple is either "kissin' or fightin' all day."
Juliette, becoming more acquainted with the operations of the barge, also becomes more familiar with Jules – in one of the more ambiguous and comical sequences of the film, Jules flirts with Juliette, demonstrating (among other things) his sewing prowess, his tattoos, and his "best friend" (hands in a jar are all that remains). Jean storms in, clearly unhappy, and soon both plates and cats are flying through the air. As the barge nears Paris, Juliette is consumed with innocent and naive visions of an opulent, civilized city and her spirits are enlivened by the promise of fun and excitement not found on the ship (or her provincial roots). Not sharing her profound excitement, but acquiescing, Jean agrees to take her upon Jules' return from his "consultation" in the city. This proves far longer than either expects, as Jules winds up with a fortune teller, getting the "full treatment" and quite drunk in the process. They finally get their opportunity to explore Paris together after Jules' tipsy return, and Juliette is immediately smitten – by the jewelry, the store windows, and a "charming" hustler of sorts who sells her a scarf. Jean, again less than enthusiastic, demands they return to the barge. They do, but Juliette is privately inconsolable – she eludes Jean's watchful eye and spirits away back to Paris. Incensed, Jean decides to pick up anchor and leave over Jules' protests. So begins Juliette's uncertain journey through a Paris decidedly less romanticized than anticipated, and Jean's dark journey through his now troubled spirit, brought about by his impulsive and stubborn personality.
Without going into the denouement, there are two brief sequences which merit special mention for their sheer beauty and haunting, lasting power. Upon their separation, Jean becomes increasingly despondent. Having been told by Juliette that "you can see the one you love in the water," Jean desperately jumps into the waters (after unsuccessfully – and touchingly – thrusting his head into a bucket) in an attempt to glimpse his beloved Juliette again. He does, and her angelic visage resonates as deeply to the viewer as it does to Jean – it's a bravura, gorgeous sequence that never relinquishes its power to amaze. The other is the famed lovemaking (sort of) sequence. Juliette and Jean, although separated by space, begin to make love through a carefully constructed montage that is noteworthy for both its audacity and its sensual, lyrical rhythm. It is a poignant, effective scene suffused with a lush, erotic melancholy. In all fairness, the entire film – not just the above sequences – is aided in no small measure by Boris Kaufman's evocative cinematography, which is very well rendered in the current DVD release. Again, this may all not be "perfect," but L'Atalante remains a unique, quietly haunting entry in cinematic history.
Video: Succinctly put, this is the best rendition of L'Atalante I have ever viewed. There are instances of some source print damage, including occasional tears, debris, and slight shimmering, but the restorations have done a truly remarkable job given what was available to work with and the age of the film itself. Very well done.
Audio: The audio is presented in DD 2.0. There is a certain hollowness and tinniness to the soundtrack, although it does not impede the clarity of either the music or the dialogue. The music and songs, by Maurice Jaubert, still punctuate and add wonderfully to the atmosphere of the proceedings.
Extras: On board is a featurette, the Making of L'Atalante (20:56), with Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf (who also recently lent commentary and appeared in the featurettes in Kieslowski's Three Colors, as well as Truffaut's Day for Night featurette) and film historian Bernard Eisenschitz. This is generally an amiable affair; the two discuss (separately) various aspects of the film, Vigo, and the actors, etc., but its tone is more celebratory than revelatory. They do, however, add some context to the film itself and its overall history.
Also included is a Stills Gallery, Poster Gallery, and Vigo Filmography.
Final Thoughts: One can only speculate as to whether or not this will be the "definitive" version of L'Atalante on DVD. I certainly hope it is not – although it belongs in any cineaste's home library, the touted "Collectors Edition" omissions will undoubtedly have some film buffs crying foul. (If New Yorker had either the rights or the inclination – or both, as I remain unsure – they could have added the excised scenes as an extra, or perhaps even included the other versions of the film in their entirety; for a film noted for past omissions and mutilations, it only stands to reason.) Moreover, since such extensive work has been done of late, a commentary or documentary by an involved party would have been obviously welcome. Accordingly, completists will have no choice but to hold onto the 1991 New Yorker release to see the aforementioned footage.
However, the print used is certainly the best representation of L'Atalante that I have ever witnessed, and the loving care utilized in the restoration(s) is obvious. Furthermore, for one of the world's truly great films, this is welcome news and an important release. With an air of slight disappointment and the above misgivings – and as it is – this edition still warrants DVD Talk Collector Series' status.