It's the day of the wedding, and Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) are the lucky couple, only maybe Juliette doesn't feel too fortunate as this day was not all she had hoped for. For a start, once the ceremony has been completed, they have to walk through the village towards the river, where their transport is waiting, the guests grumbling all the way, and the barge's mate, Pere Jules (Michel Simon) does his best to make a not-very-exciting prospect more appealing. However, seeing as how he knocks the bouquet he has arranged into the water (and his cap too), maybe he could do a better job of it; the bride, meanwhile, has to decide to make the best of things, anguished mother or not.
L'Atalante was a film that was nearly lost to the ages, tragically so, for its director and main creative force was Jean Vigo, hitherto a crafter of short works and making waves with his anarchistic boys school revolt yarn Zero de Conduite. This proved more of a hardship to make, sadly, as the shoot went on it was becoming clear Vigo was not a well man, and despite his attempts to get the thing finished, he passed away from complications of tuberculosis at the far too young age of twenty-nine. This left a lot of footage and the editor to work out how to assemble it, as the director did not live to see the film completed and exhibited: if he had, he would have doubtless been less than pleased.
That was down to the reception in 1934 being a chilly one, and the final cut was reduced to barely over an hour to try and find an audience that just wasn't interested. A romantic comedy drama may not have been what the public wanted to watch back when the mood of the world was darkening in the run-up to World War II, or maybe most of them simply didn't get the joke (or the romance), but it took until after the conflict was over for this film to be rediscovered. Whereupon it was proclaimed as a masterpiece, yet even then there were disputes as to what version Vigo would have approved, not to mention the issues that it had been overpraised for such a ramshackle work.
But for L'Atalante's fans, that loose, thrown together quality was all part of the piece's considerable charm, depicting not some idealised couple deep in the throes of their passion, more a pair who had obstacles to overcome as they knew from the beginning that their marriage was never going to be perfect. Should they continue anyway, or admit defeat? That was the real tension at the heart of the story, and if you became any way invested with Jean and Juliette in the first half, you would be feeling very melancholy during the second when they apparently split up to go their separate ways. Interestingly, we could see exactly why Juliette would want a life independent of her husband, yet also that while he was devastated and really could not live without her now she was gone, their existence was never going to be flawless, together or alone.
The conclusion was that it was better to face a harsh world together rather than admit defeat and be lonely, and you could regard that second part as an item of delayed gratification. However, this was a comedy too, and often laugh out loud funny, largely down to the antics of Simon, one of France's most beloved actors here proving his mettle as the slovenly, uncouth but highly amusing and loyal mate. He was a bundle of quirks, from his love of the pet cats that roam the barge, to his accordion playing, to his (predictable) overfondness of the bottle, yet Simon held it all together in this character who had seen a lot of life, and had a lot invested in the happiness of his boss and his new wife. It was a marvellous performance, full of good humour and affection even under that rough and ready exterior, and brought out a genuine humanity in what could have been ninety minutes of break ups and make ups. If you could not see the romance, the poignancy, and indeed the impending despair, in L'Atalante, it would do nothing for you, but if you could, it would enchant. Music by Maurice Jaubert.