"L'Atalante," (1930), a romantic drama, is one of the lesser known glories of early French cinema, which is a shame, as it is a masterpiece. It is in black and white, runs a tight 89 minutes, and is the great achievement of Jean Vigo, a too-little known but greatly respected and influential film maker who died of tuberculosis, shortly after its completion, at the shockingly young age of 29. The film is now generally available only on a disk of Vigo's collected works, along with his "A propos de Nice," "Taris" and "Zero de conduite" that constitute the entire oeuvre of the director's short, turbulent life.
"L'Atalante" opens as Juliette, a young village girl who has never set foot outside her village, marries Jean, mate on a French river barge named "L'Atalante," and sets up housekeeping aboard. Also aboard are a cabin boy, and the colorful old sailor Pere Jules, played by the inimitable Michel Simon (Criterion Collection: Port of Shadows [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC
]). When the barge reaches Paris, Juliette, who has never seen that great city, slips off to take a look at it. Jean awakes, discovers her gone, and leaves her to her own devices in the French capital. She knows no one there, has no money, does not know the city at all, and will have a very hard time there. But so will Jean, on his own again, until Pere Jules goes to find her.
But this simple, engaging plot isn't the reason the film is so loved. It was restored in 2001, making Boris Kaufman's brilliant cinematography and Maurice Jaubert's lovely score accessible again. The picture is legendary for its sheer, sparkling beauty: the waterways of France, and of Paris - the movie was filmed in that city's "Bassin de la Villette, Paris 19"-- among other locations, have never looked more evocatively beautiful. The characters are full-blown, their actions unpredictable, confusing, true to life. The film is wildly imaginative, inventive, surrealist, and has been compared to the daring early works of Vigo's contemporaries, the better known Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel. It remains fresh today, with scenes that still have the power to surprise and absorb us.
Vigo, the film maker, was the son of Miguel Almareyda, a notorious anarchist, who died mysteriously in jail when Vigo was 12. The young boy was always in poor health: he was abandoned by his mother and sent from boarding school to boarding school. He took up film at age 23, and the world is a better place because he did.