Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté (background) in L’Atalante.
Courtesy Janus Films

Marriage is the most romantic thing in the world, until reality hits: Is it even possible to mesh two lives? At the beginning of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, one of the most poetic movies about romantic partnership ever made, a young bargemaster, Jean (Jean Dasté) takes a radiant country girl, Juliette (Dita Parlo), as his bride. The two will begin their life together on the barge, gliding along in the water in an idyll of lovemaking. But it doesn’t turn out quite that way: there’s friction when Jean becomes jealous of Juliette’s burgeoning friendship with his outlandishly tattooed, grunting first mate, Old Jules (Michel Simon). Jean has promised Juliette he’ll take her to Paris when the barge docks there, but Jules and the cabin boy slip off first, and Jean can’t leave the boat unattended. Juliette, longing to see the city, sneaks away by herself, intending to return before the barge pushes off. But in a huff, Jean leaves her behind. What follows is a story of a marriage off to a bumpy start, but not a hopeless one. It’s a movie about human mistakes, though Vigo—who died of tuberculosis at age 29, shortly after the film’s premiere—addresses these foibles with infinite tenderness. When Jean realizes how much he misses his young wife, he plunges from his barge into the water and sees her as an undersea vision, dancing in her wedding dress, a promise of love that he himself has pushed away. The movie ends, as it must, with reconciliation. Anything less would be too much for us to bear.

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