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‘L’Atalante’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 09, 1990

A bloodless description of Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante" would indicate a black and white French film, made in 1934, featuring a mundane boy-girl plot, a collection of French songs and a barge. But similar scrutiny would define a pearl as a layered piece of grit.

Yes, this movie's about a boy (Jean Daste), a girl (Dita Parlo) and a barge (called L'Atalante), but it's also a jewel of a movie, which has been recently recut, reshone and redisplayed by archival champions Pierre Philippe and Jean-Louis Bompoint. If you watch films with any kind of aesthetic pulse, this one will quicken your pleasure as often as you see it. And this movie you should see often.

Between its captivating opening, in which barge captain Daste leads new bride Parlo (and a slightly querulous wedding procession) to the boat, to the final image of the barge ploughing through the Seine, "L'Atalante" is a cineaste's Rorschach test. You can see and feel an abundance of images, sensations, moods, things. The movie is all about abundance, from the proliferation of on-board cats (which practically spill out of the screen) to Maurice Jaubert's numerous, pleasing songs.

There is much playfulness and poetry, such visual riches. When Parlo walks along the top of her new, floating home -- her dazzling, white bridal dress a stunning contrast to the blacks and grays of the river and river bank in the background and the vessel under her feet -- it's but one of a hundred stunning images.

But all of "L'Atalante's" elements flow unmistakably in and out of the central, sensual affair between Daste and Parlo. Young, dovelike lovers, they whisper amorous words we can only guess at in each other's ears. At one point, after Parlo, sick of the waterbound life, has left her new husband, the movie cuts from one separated lover to the other, as they toss and turn in their respective beds, caressing their bodies. The sleepless loneliness and the naked longing are palpable.

As the barge's mate, Michel Simon is just tremendous. Fresh, at the time, from two equally memorable roles in Jean Renoir's "La Chienne" and "Boudu Saved From Drowning," he's a burly, rambunctious sea dog. He smokes cigarettes with his navel and charms Parlo with stories from his trips around the world and with a collection of curios that includes a sawfish's bill and the embalmed hands of a departed friend. He also goes in search of Parlo when all seems lost between the lovers.

As you watch "L'Atalante," you should know you're witnessing the swan song of a man who literally died for his art. Vigo, a 29-year-old, ailing genius, shot this (only his second feature) in a brutal winter, aggravating a lung infection. Although he supervised some of the editing from his bed, his movie was essentially taken over by the Gaumont-Franco studios, which butchered it and retitled it as "The Passing Barge."

The movie opened to a poor public reception and was pulled after only a few weeks. Vigo died of lung failure a few days later.

Pierre Philippe and Jean-Louis Bompoint, with Gaumont's support, retrieved various versions of "L'Atalante" from around the world and, working from the original shooting script, created a version that most closely resembles what Vigo might have wanted. It's a worthy project, resurrected in the spirit of a great filmmaker.

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