Here is perhaps one of the greatest wedding processions we could ever hope to see. Buster Keaton is more outrageously funny in Seven Chances, but this one is solemn, and somehow still funny in its own way. And that’s what is most striking about L’Atalante (which also serves as the name of the boat of choice). This film seems so serious and strait-laced, you might say, and yet it brims with comedy. It’s the type of everyday comedy that makes us laugh even now. Funny looking characters, odd voices, a plethora of cats all over the place. There’s no way for that to get lost in translation, and it remains quirky and engaging 80 years later.
It also happens to be a beautiful film exemplified by a newly-wedded bride walking the prow of a boat with the fog billowing around her. Or perhaps it’s two lovers embracing passionately and a smile bursting on the face of the woman. It’s so visceral, so engaging in its displays of love, energy, and emotion. In this way, it brings to mind other love stories of the age like Sunrise, It Happened One Night, and certainly the early works of Jean Renoir. Except the thing here is that director Jean Vigo never made another film after L’Atalante. He entered bad health even during filming and died soon afterward in his early 30s, but he left behind a masterpiece.
In short, the story revolves around four main characters living life together on a boat named L’Atalante. Jean is the captain and groom who has picked a beautiful wife named Juliette who is going to share his existence on the sea. His first mate is the weathered and scruffy Pere Jules. He might have a rough exterior, but he and his cabin boy are full of bumbling and buffoonery that endears them to all.
For the two lovebirds, Paris is the enchanting destination for a fantastic makeshift honeymoon, but it also proves to test their relationship from the get-go, since Jean is extremely jealous and a street peddler openly flirts with Juliette. It’s a tragic turn in their love story which leads to Juliette looking for a way home and Jean sinking into a state of depression aboard his boat. That’s what makes their ultimate reunion all the sweeter.
Thus, L’Atalante blends a timeless topic like love with little moments of magic that bubble up from within these scenes. Whether it is Juliette walking the streets window shopping, or Pere Jules giving a lens into his past with all the souvenirs he has accrued over the years. Without a doubt, he was my favorite character. I have never quite seen anything like him.