Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) has been so praised and is so much the stuff of legend (being made by a dying man) that it’s easy to forget that the film itself is a very simple affair. All that lavish praise is apt to result in disappointed first-time viewers. It may well deserve all those accolades, but on the surface this is a little movie about a pair of newlyweds—Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Daste)—adjusting to married life. It’s even harder for her, because it’s not just married life, but married life aboard a barge, the titular “L’Atalante,” that travels from Le Havre to Paris. It’s a life that includes a simple-minded first mate, the very eccentric Le père Jules (Michel Simon) and his constantly expanding brood of cats (not to mention the pickled hands of his dead best friend he keeps in a jar). Really, that—and Juliette seeming to have run away at one point—is as much plot as the film has. It may well remind some of the modern films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in its eccentric nature, and there’s no getting away from the fact that père Jules with his cats and collection of curios (not limited to the hands) would be perfectly at home in a Jeunet movie. (It would not surprise me to learn that Jeunet is a fan of the film.) The film has a weird kind of poetry and beauty about it that is hard—perhaps impossible—to describe. It simply needs to be seen, but I think it needs to be seen without expectations of being blown away. Its greatness doesn’t work that way.
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