Tuesday, September 16, 2014

L’Atalante (France 1934): The romance of cinema

Jean Vigo when he made one of cinema’s poetic masterpieces was consumptive and likely had a keen awareness of the slender hold he had on life. L’Atalante was to be his last film and his enduring cinematic legacy. A simple romantic story told with a shimmering love for those that history ignores, for unaffected lives which have a glory beyond greatness, bound up in the simple verities. The early tentative days of a just-married couple have a romance and visual poetry tinged with the melancholy of the river’s flow, itself a metaphor for the ineluctable passing of time, and the ebbs and flows of life. A tale told without artifice and with a boundless optimism. A timeless story of young love, the tribulations of matrimony, the joys of friendship, the rewards of loyalty, and the delight from the comic mishaps that life thankfully can bring; along with the conflict, the suffering, and the heartache.

L’Atalante opens in a riverside village with the marriage of barge captain Jean and Juliette his bride, by following the wedding procession from the church to the river. These disjointed scenes have a droll rhythm that immediately have you engaged.  The barge’s first mate, a gruff crotchety older man ‘Le père Jules’, and a callow cabin boy get an advance on the wedding march, but not before Jules hurriedly backtracks to the church font to quickly make the sign of the cross. The bridal couple troop in total seriousness, and in silence, followed languidly by a far more relaxed wedding party. The mother of the bride is comforted by the father, while the rest straggle and find plenty to gossip about. A man at the tail end of the procession gives his partner a more than gentle giddy-up by patting her on the behind. We learn from the gossip that there will be no honeymoon. Juliette is to start married life on the barge in the cramped quarters below deck with Jean and his crew – and Jules’ harem of shipboard cats.

Jules and the cabin boy have raced ahead so that they can welcome the new “lady-boss” on board with a bunch of flowers. As they frantically prepare aboard for her impending arrival, we are regaled with a delightful slapstick around the flowers, the bucketful of water to keep them fresh, the river, and a kitten clinging to the shoulders of Jules’ coat as he lumbers about on deck.

After getting the bride safely on board, L’Atalante steams towards Paris with its cargo and crew.  Along with the ripples of the barge’s flow we see the young newlyweds running hot and cold; Juliette setting up house and disturbing the bachelor habits of the males, while dreaming of Paris and being fascinated with the strange collection of Jules’ souvenirs from a lifetime of seafaring; and, to Juliette’s consternation, the cats invading the bridal bed!

It is not long before Jean has an outbreak of jealousy, when Juliette discovers the weird and wonderful train wreck that is Jules’ cabin. In a scene that is infused with a playful eroticism, Jules’ naked and tattooed upper torso jostles dangerously with Juliette’s playful fascination as they squeeze past one another over, under, and around the assorted bric-a-brac. Jules’ pinups of nude women a winking counterpoint to these less than innocent antics. Jean on coming upon the scene in his anger goes to smashing whatever of the detritus comes to hand.

When they reach the environs of Paris, Jules, in a sulk after the run-in with Jean, storms off in search of ‘doctoring’ by a lady of the night. With Jules AWOL, Jean must stay with the barge, so the couple are not able to explore Paris until evening, when Jules returns.  With Jules back on board, Jean and Juliette visit a cabaret near the wharf. There, an itinerant magician on a bicycle flirts brazenly with Juliette.  Jean’s jealousy is reignited and he peevishly decides to leave Paris that night. Juliette has other ideas and sneaks onto a tram headed for the centre of Paris.

A rift and extended separation follows, after Juliette is left stranded in Paris when Jean in another fit of peevishness he will regret, has the barge leave Paris without her. But true love eventually prevails with the two lovers reunited at the end in an emotional reunion and embrace. The reunion comes after Jules locates Juliette and returns her to the barge in an outrageous search and rescue operation.

The story is reverently portrayed through elegiac scenes of the working barge in mist, under clouds, in the early morning, and at night. Below deck the camaraderie and tensions arising from confinement are filmed in close-up and from overhead. There is a true intimacy as all four inhabitants – with all the ups and downs of barge life – settle down to a modus-vivendi sealed with affection and regard, but as with all lively souls, not without an inclination to melodramatic outbursts of jealousy and fickleness. A spice that none of them could live without, and which makes our journey as voyeurs so much richer and compelling.  We fall in love with these souls. They draw out our own longings and regrets, and we invest these lives with a veracity so bright that we don’t want the journey to end.

It is Vigo’s film, but his ownership is mortgaged to the stellar cast, the richness of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, and the playful melodies of Maurice Jaubert’s cheeky score, resting as it does on the zestful wheezing of the piano accordian, that distinctly egalitarian instrument so loved by the French.

Vigo filmed during winter, so on location shooting was hostage to the weather, and on days of heavy fog some scenes were shot on a studio replica of the barge. The seamless photography and the editing never betray the artifice.  The location scenes have a cinema-verité, almost documentary, quality, which in deep focus records the barge’s journey to Paris.  A particular sequence when Jean and his crew manoeuvre the boat through a lock, is stunningly beautiful.

In this naturalistic tableau the charms of the principal players engage your emotions so completely that when there is a conflict or separation, you are more than anxious for a reconciliation, so they can continue the romance of their lives together.

Michel Simon as Jules is a joy with his comic antics having not only charm but a deep humanity.  Jean is played by Jean Dasté, the lead from Vigo’s earlier Zero de conduit, who perfectly portrays the conflicted young lover often stumbling while learning to balance the love for his new bride, his work, and the affection and regard of his crew. Dita Parlo as Juliette captures your heart.  Charming, cute as a button, and totally unaffected, she is the girl next door in all her innocence, decency, starry-eyed giggles, and petulant obstinacy. Vigo selected the inexperienced Louis Lefebvre to play the cabin boy for the very beguiling awkwardness that the young novice portrays. Gille Margaritis as the surreal magician during his scenes literally demolishes the scenery – even boldly ad-libbing satirical lyrics to a popular romantic song of the period about barge life.

The romance of Vigo’s L’Atalante in all its votive and lyrical charm takes you to a place you never want to leave. A romance of love and of life, a cinematic refuge from the dark absurdity of existence.