L’Atalante (1934) Review

L’Atalante (1934)  Director: Jean Vigo


Jean Vigo was a legendary 1930s French film director, and tragically, L’Atalante was his only feature length film. Vigo was only active between the years 1930-1934. None of his short films were commercial successes, leaving his sickly wife impoverished –at one point Vigo was even forced to sell his camera to pay the bills. Often regarded as a genius, Vigo was a cinematic talent who was gone too soon. He died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of 29, with L’Atalante being his final film. Today, L’Atalante is widely celebrated as one of the greatest films of all time.

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The dream-like quality of L’Atalante tells the story of Jean, a ship captain of “L’Atalante” (pronounced “lah-talaunt”). He gets married and moves aboard his ship with his wife, Juliette, but experiences jealousy upon discovering that his wife has been spending time with his first mate. Jeane and Juliette part ways while the ship is parked in Paris, but they eventually reunite in embrace. The film accurately captures the immediate highs and lows of love and marriage in charming fashion.

L’Atalante is an odd experimental film that fits well into the panoply of French cinema. At times, it might be difficult for a modern viewer to engage with the film. However, its redeeming qualities lie in its incredible cinematography –scenes of dreams, underwater dancing, beautiful splicing and shimmering scenes of blissful love immediately following Jean and Juliette’s wedding. Perhaps some critics are drawn to the background story for the film, rather than the film itself –namely, that Vigo caught tuberculosis during many of the wet and cold filming sequences for L’Atalante and it caused him to die shortly thereafter. Thus, Jean Vigo is sometimes conveyed as an auteur-martyr for the cause of visionary cinema.

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