L’Atalante begins with a wedding procession; village girl Dita Parlo has married commercial barge captain Jean Dasté and is going off to live with him on the barge. The wedding guests drop all these details through exposition—we’re not privy to the newlyweds’ conversations as they walk through the village to the barge. Juxtaposed, first mate Michel Simon and cabin boy Louis Lefebvre race ahead to have the boat ready for the captain’s wife’s arrival.
Both Simon and Lefebvre bumble comically while the guests’ exposition establishes Parlo’s never even left the village before and is also a bit more of a dreamer than the rest of the town. The exposition drops turn out to be important as one of Parlo and Dasté’s problems is going to be their inability to talk to one another. It’s also going to allow director Vigo to do these wonderful sequences inspecting how Parlo’s experiencing her new reality. There’s never any discussion of what she expected or what Dasté told her, but she arrives readier to work than he’s comfortable with, leading to a fine comedy sequence involving the laundry.
Life on the barge is initially as idyllic as it’s going to get with outrageously eccentric Simon making things interesting, but the newlyweds have discovered the pleasures of the flesh so they can put up with a lot from Simon. In addition to being a tchotchke and junk collector, Simon has an uncounted amount of cats aboard the barge, leading to some adorable comic relief moments.
But when Parlo starts to get bored—after Dasté’s back to piloting the barge instead of keeping her warm in bed—things start getting testy. Especially after Dasté gets into a fight with Simon, which acts as the inciting incident for the rest of the couple’s troubles.
All Parlo wants is to see something besides the barge and the riverbank, but Dasté’s responsibility is to the barge and Simon’s not in the mood to do him any favors. Pretty soon Parlo (and the audience) learns Dasté’s jealous outbursts aren’t rare but rather the norm. And neither of them wants to talk things through, leading to a couple impulse decisions, but one with far greater consequences for the couple and the film.
L’Atlante has a handful of dreamlike sequences, usually from the perspective of the characters, though sometimes Vigo gets so enthusiastic he lets the film get lost in them. Most impressively he’s able to maintain the dream in one character’s plot while toggling back and forth to another’s; the latter threatens to turn the former into a nightmare, but Vigo doesn’t let it intrude, with Maurice Jaubert’s helping keep the two threads in balance. It’s precise and glorious work.
Starting towards the end of the second act, Vigo’s also able to tighten the focus on Dasté’s performance, something the film had never suggested would be an emphasis. Not with Simon able to handily walk off with any scene, his costars and Vigo enthusiastically giving him all the room he needs or wants. So when the focus tightens on Dasté, Parlo and Simon maybe not fading but definitely given some distance, everything all of a sudden hinges on Dasté being able to be sympathetic without the narrative giving him any help in deserving it. Vigo changes up the narrative distance, but maintains the same approach to characterization. It ends up letting Vigo leverage the supporting cast, which works out and keeps from letting Dasté get mawkish.
The film’s a technical delight. Boris Kaufman does a great job shooting it all, with he and Vigo getting some amazing shots on the barge and of the barge. Louis Chavance’s editing is magical, especially with Jaubert’s music running under his cuts.
Parlo and Dasté are both good. The film incidentally builds their character relationship, letting everything else take precedence—okay, usually Simon, but how isn’t he going to walk away with a scene, but again, Vigo makes it work—so once they start having troubles, there’s no real inherent sympathy. Because L’Atalante can be a fairy tale, a day dream, a nightmare, and a dual character study all in one. No one—not Vigo, not Dasté, not Parlo, not Simon—even has to toggle. They’re able to do all of them simultaneously, no doubt thanks to Vigo, but the cast keeps up.
Of course, Simon’s the best performance. He’s an aged sailor who’s traveled the world and ended up on the barges, he likes his drink, he likes his cats, and he likes ladies. Maybe too much. The way Vigo and Simon balance Simon right up until the end is phenomenal. Even as Dasté gets more and more volatile, the energy always buzzes off Simon. So good.
Lefebvre’s fine as the cabin boy. He’s entirely support. Gilles Margaritis’s good as a flirty traveling salesman who happens across the naive but separately so newlyweds.