A cine-poem ode to the rhythms of life and love set on a barge travelling along the Seine, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante stands as one of cinema's indisputable masterpieces. Jean (Jean Dasté) is the skipper who brings bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) aboard his barge to share cabin space with several dozen cats and grumpy first mate Père Jules (Michel Simon). As honeymoon canoodling turns to unhappy squabbling, Vigo turns the gritty essence of working class canal life into lyrical poetry.
Vigo was seriously ill when he made this, his first and last feature. Occasionally forced to direct his actors from a stretcher, he crafts a captivating fairytale about love's ups and downs that's charged with frank eroticism and strange, ethereal majesty. Images collide, creating moments of pure cinema: Père Jules wrestling himself on the deck of the barge; the cats that infest every inch of the galley; Jean searching for his true love in the murky depths of the Seine.
"FLOATS THROUGH COMEDY AND TRAGEDY"
Dismayed by its poetry, the original distributors butchered it to make it more populist: a cruel and foolish decision that took decades to reverse. Ironically, it's hard to imagine how it could be more accessible. Full of warm love for his characters - in particular Michel Simon's garrulous drunken sailor - Vigo's drama floats through comedy and tragedy with the jaunty air of the accordion playing that dominates the soundtrack. Laced with melancholy, yet curiously uplifting in its precious, intangible beauty, L'Atalante is one of those rare things: a movie that moves.
In French with English subtitles.