The son of anarchists, a sufferer of tuberculosis and a playful movie poet, French filmmaker Jean Vigo died at age 29, mere days after completing his only feature, 1934’s river-bound romance “L’Atalante.” Poor health robbed cinema of a wholly original talent, but “L’Atalante” survives to enchant and mystify, and now arrives in a 4K restoration overseen by Gaumont that used an original nitrate print kept all these years by the British Film Institute.
Thankfully kept, that is, because Vigo’s movie was so poorly received upon original release that it was recut in a failed attempt to make it more commercial. What did the studio think wasn’t commercial in the fable-ish tale of newlyweds Jean (Jean Dasté), a barge captain, and naïve country girl Juliette (a glowing Dita Parlo)? The emphasis on an elusive mood over a taut story? The remnants of 1920s-era surrealism that occasionally adorned Vigo’s vision and pacing? The carnival-esque touches and dreamlike nature of certain sequences? Certainly not the multiplying cats, who hover, dart through and slink across the frame in the boat scenes like born photo-bombers. Nor could it be Michel Simon as the most compellingly irascible of tattooed, drunken, yet sentimental old salts.
There’s imagery and camerawork in the first half hour that you’d be hard-pressed to forget: a rush of enigmatic steam rising into a river vista; a wedding party following the lovers like a funeral procession; Parlo in bridal satin, seen in long shot, walking the length of the barge in the opposite direction of the vessel’s movement, a figure in spectral white against a darkened landscape.
The honeymoon is short, in that a cargo delivery awaits in Paris. Juliette finds herself tempted to experience the city, while Jean’s jealousy kicks in — at first, of all things, toward Simon’s grimy crew hand Père Jules, whose exotic possessions collected from around the world (some eerie, some sexual) entrance Juliette. That’s followed by the couple’s excursion to a café on land, which puts them in the cross-hairs of a flirtatious peddler whose attention toward Juliette further introduces a frisson of doubt into the union. So much so that later, when Juliette sneaks off the barge at night to taste more of Paris, Jean sets sail in the morning without her.
“L’Atalante” is about how the world, in its wonder and cruelty, is both for and against lovers, often dizzyingly so. And what splendidly captures this as well as anything is Maurice Jaubert’s wonderful score, which Vigo used judiciously, often marrying it exquisitely to diegetic rhythms (a far-off bell, industrial clacking, an on-screen accordion) for enthralling effect. It’s a brilliant early example of the possibilities the sound era offered in framing a story’s emotions to carry a moviegoer along. Jaubert’s tuneful contribution is made all the more hypnotic by the many earthy, realistic sequences in which no music plays. That way, when it emerges, as when it decorates the movie’s famous crosscutting of its separated lovers — she in a drab hotel, he on the barge — in simultaneous erotic reverie, the effect is memorably overwhelming.
It’s been speculated that Vigo’s demise was hurried by recklessly overexposing his fragile self to the freezing temperatures that marked the filming. It leaves “L’Atalante” with a strange legacy spell that can absorb the sadness of its director’s short life and re-constitute it through each re-watching as a lyrical, shifting magnetism, depending on what each moviegoer brings to it.
Sometimes, the film may seem the most direct and naturalistic of love stories: togetherness, loneliness and reunion steered with graceful compassion. But another viewing might behold a work just otherworldly enough to tickle and confound. We’re lucky that Vigo’s sublimely versatile, sensory-rich masterpiece is there, then, to remind us that life is strange like that — a dance with steps, a barge slowly moving one way, yet full of flights of desire that can seem gloriously unmoored.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 5, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles