L’Atalante is the name of a working ship. It is also the name of a very fine film. When COVID got underway in March, 2020, Ruth and I craved time-fillers. About this time I found a very old book that listed foreign films of note several years ago. The book awarded stars to all of them. The highest rating was 5. I made a list of all the 5-star films, and we began finding and watching them. L’Atalante was one of them.
Ruth & I began searching for these 5-star movies without much success. About this time we became aware of the Criterion Channel. Criterion restores old movies and shows them on its channel for $99.99 a year. We had access to Criterion and sampled its content. We immediately liked it after we found that Criterion had restored lots of the 5-star films on our list. After a trial period we subscribed and began viewing a movie almost daily. We have watched about 40 old foreign films and about half of them, including L’Atlante, were clearly worthy of 5-stars. We began to include 4-star movies from the list. The book’s ratings proved mostly accurate in our opinions.
Many of the films have risen in their worthiness over time. The best example of this is a French movie that the book called The Clockmaker. We discovered that its full title is The Clockmaker of St. Paul. This 1974 film made entirely in Lyon, France, and based on a Georges Simenon mystery novel earned 4 stars in our book, but it has risen in esteem and, in our opinion based on at least 3 viewings, is worthy of 5 stars now. If you see it, look for a very young Isabelle Huppert, who went on to earn an Academy Award nomination, in a bit part. It was directed by Bernard Tavernier, who died recently.
L’Atalante has a sad history. It was directed by Jean Vigo. The reason you might not know his name is because he directed only 4 films before dying at the age of 29. A victim of tuberculosis, Jean Vigo left behind this highly original, earthy film that stars a mid-1930s Paris as if it is a major character. Vigo also wrote the screenplay. His film has become a recognized masterpiece.
L’Atalante stars Michel Simon in the role of Pere Jules. Simon went on to make 90 more movies in a long, illustrious career. At first the viewer does not realize that this cat loving man is such an important character. Over time you begin to realize his importance. He is a veteran sailor/captain who has traveled all over the world and collected treasures from many cultures. The reason why he is working on a barge on the Seine River is never explained, but it’s suggested that this checker player, musician, and sewing machine expert may have developed a drinking problem. He doesn’t look like Humphrey Bogart, but Simon somehow reminded me of this famous actor with his common yet complex persona.
The female star of this film, Dita Parlo, seems far more important at first. The film begins with her marriage and focuses on her moving onto the L’Atalante and adapting to life on board. When the boat docks in Paris, she falls in love with the city and gets stranded there alone for a period of time with no support. Her developing friendship with Pere Jules shows Parlo’s acting ability and helps to reveal his character. This beautiful German actress made only about 12 more films after L’Atalante, but she is so good in it that the viewer becomes convinced that this is her best performance.
Like many great films, L’Atalante was poorly received at first. Its reputation grew over time. The Cinematheque Francais got behind it reconstruction when it recognized its genius, and Criterion is happy to promote it as a cinema classic. It is.