Seinfeld isn’t funny and L’Atalante isn’t a masterpiece. Jean Vigo’s final film — and the one that basically killed him — follows a newlywed couple as they live aboard the small ship L’Atalante. The wife, Juliette (Dita Parlo), is a happy, innocent girl, and her husband, Jean (Jean Daste), is a jealous skipper who controls her every action. The film follows them through a series of quarrels and redemptions.
L’Atalante is one of the most influential films of all time. Providing inspiration for many French New Wave directors, such as Godard and Truffaut, L’Atalante placed Jean Vigo as one of the most hailed and original French directors. It’s apparent while watching L’Atalante that Vigo is a master visually. But I’m convinced this film has received such high praise simply for a few sequences, notably the underwater, a superimposed scene which paved the way for the future dream sequence, and a couple scenes here and there where Vigo makes wonderful use of his cramped space aboard the L’Atalante.
The film as a whole, however, has a lot of problems. The first half is a more or less fruitless display, offering unmoving portraits — and the film’s overall arc is insulting. After many unfortunate trials that Juliette faces with her husband’s abuse, she goes back to him in the end’s “romantic” embrace. Jean never redeemed his actions, and the film ends with a circle back to the beginning. Eventually Jean will go back to his uncomplimentary persona, and Juliette will again become the ignorant, doting wife.
Seinfeld might not be funny, but he’s an extremely important figure, just as L’Atalante might not be great, but necessary and essential.