Unfortunately for both of us, I doubt the present review will make you want to see L'Atalante again. I don't have much to say about it. Truth be told, I was a little underwhelmed by it. In all fairness to the film, what little I've been watching lately has mostly been of the contemporary documentary sort, so I think my head was out of practice with (a) old, (b) foreign language hence subtitles and (c) fictitious drama.
In all fairness to me, however, I cannot agree with the blurb on the box which states that "a simple and engaging plot is transformed into a kaleidoscope of dazzling digressions." Well, I didn't find them so dazzling. The film sort of meanders along for the most part, introducing a dynamic conflict very late in the narrative. Coming so late as it does, this dynamic conflict is, frankly, not dynamic enough. After such a lengthy and laconic preamble, a ride a tad more wild, you know, a big finish, was missed by me. I do agree with the box that the film boasts some "offbeat characterizations," particularly the hilarious old sea dog covered with kittens and surrounded by all of the paraphernalia from his world travels . This performance is wonderful, drawing deep from the well of The Clown and I capitalize the category in order to acknowledge its profundity. And I liked the passion and romance of the newly-weds. But the relative newness of talkie technology seemed yet unmastered by Vigo insofar as the characters didn't have much of anything to say to each other.
More damning, for all the arresting shots and imagery - admittedly, some of this pretty darn arresting - the story-telling is not the best due to the absence of certain required scenes, either because they were never written in the first place or else because they were edited to the floor. And this hooks up the pacing problem of the film once the dynamic conflict comes into play. The minute she goes ashore independently and he lifts anchor without her, the story needs to kick into high grear. An accelerated pace would not only have generated the excitement of speed in its own right, it would have allowed for the much neglected elaboration on her adventure/crisis. What she actually gets into is underdeveloped and how she gets into anything at all is never explained, (how she is eventually located and returned by the old sea dog is so unexplained we can only allow this as pure poetic licence.) I can't help but wonder if the problem I am identifying originated from Vigo never committing to the female character as the overt protagonist of the tale. L'Atalante is an ensemble piece, a trio really, but I believe it would have been a much stronger story if it had definitely been hers.
As for that arresting cinematography I admitted already, I suppose this is the main reason why L'Atalante is treasured today. There are some very cool things to see. And on this score, I think the setting of film is not trivial. The camera movement on and around the boat, the boat in relation to its environs and the general depiction of this working class vocational culture into which she - and therefore - we have entered, all of this is atmospherically captured by the camera with considerable evocative authority. In short, the boat trip and everything related to it is working for me. I just think the film is less in control of itself when we are away from the boat.
As for L'Atalante, I'm obviously a bigger fan of the film that you. It's not canonical (heh) or anything, but it's still a fascinating film for me. Perhaps I'm more willing than you to cut it some slack, particularly given when the film was made (so early on in the talkie era) cuz it was so bloody hard for filmmakers to keep the picture moving and vibrant at this time--so many films in the early silent era were stodgy, dull affairs, bogged down by the logistics of where to plant the mic in order to record the actor's dialogue--that a film like this, which--though admittedly langorously paced by comparison to, say, a Buster Keaton film--manages to keep rolling on down the river allowing the characters both physical and emotional movement despite the challenges imposed by consideration for all that sound equipment. I also don't mind the leisurely pace vis a vis the narrative, because the non-narrative elements, such as the cinematography (the imagery! Just the way Vigo captures the character of the French riverbank is quite remarkable, and some of the fantasy sequences, and those underwater shots, wow!), captivated me throughout. This is a film that is much more about mood than plot, which is why I suppose that I allow that while a bit more tension and sense of urgency after the complications set in would have given the film a more compelling payoff, I'm not terribly distressed. The film gives me enough story by showing the degenerative effects of time on young married life, as the story unfolds of a couple's disillusionment, and as their relationship moves from its initial dreaminess to a more tedious realism. Also, the movie presents the conventional story of innocence to experience, as the young girl Juliette leaves the small village that's always been her home, and heads out into the great unknown. She begins marriage with some trepidation, but much more curiousity, which fuels some of her flights of fancy (Vigo even includes some arty sequences depicting their mutual yearnings), and when that fantasy, which includes promises from dear hubby to be given a tour of gay Paris, is obliterated by a crueler and more petty reality, I think the film capably captures the death of the girl's idealism. In the early going, married life is both beautiful and strange, and Vigo's stellar camerawork helps us to share this young couple's experiences.
But to be honest, I quite enjoyed the fact that the film wasn't all that concerned about such matters. Instead, we are given a lyrical glimpse into life on (and along) the river; it has a distinct joie de vivre, and anticipates a 60s sort of free spiritedness that I continue to find very appealing. And while I will also concede that the performance of the "salty sea dog" (Michel Simon, a favourite of Jean Renoir's. As is Jean Daste, who plays the hubby) is my favourite, and in a film that is--at least ostensibly--about the unravelling of a marriage, that's somewhat problematic, however, I think that there's a none too subtle sexual tension in the sea dog's scenes with the girl that hint at this film's subversive subtext. Is this really a traditional happy ending, with a reversion to conventional roles of man and woman as husband and wife? Not while that sea dog still sails with 'em, they don't. In some ways, L'Atalante is a little like Sunrise, an arty film that takes us on a journey through the tensions that can beset a marriage, but with a more open-ended resolution. Regardless, this was the tubercular Vigo's final film (he died at the far too tender age of 29) and I can't help but mourn the films an even more mature, capable and confident director might have made.
You mention the technical achievement of Vigo keeping the ball rolling while accomodating all that sound equipment. Funny you should lean on this because a number of times it looked to me as if he filmed without audio, providing the sound track after the fact. I believe Fellini did this throughout his career precisely so as to free the camera from any constraint associated with all the sound equipment. I gave Vigo his props with respect to the motility of the camera and the cool imagery but at the same time I suggested that the price for this was paid by the narrative in both the (literally) meagre dialogue and the (more abstract) aural awkwardness.
I am glad you mentioned Sunrise because I thought of bringing it up myself before. I decided not to then because I was going to state that Vigo's film doesn't even come close to Murnau's. You are right that they both explore conjugal domesticity under threat. But Sunrise synthesizes rustic goth creepiness and ultra modern urban flash in a truly amazing manner, all the while holding fast to a level of melodrama in the plot that will take no prisoners of indecision, no captives of ambiguity hoping to dodge the moral cannon fire. L'Atalante is entirely without this degree of conceptual rigour, and falling back on the different sensibilities between the frogs and the krauts is no excuse this time. It's not that your observations about L'Atalante's examination of the "honeymoon being over" are not valid. It's that the thematic meaning of this examination never solidifies in the film because it never really decides on a particular character's point of view. I said before that it should have been the wife's but even if this is to be rejected, I maintain that the story is a bit of a lump because it lacks a plainly selected protagonist.
As for a couple of your other points, I think we are in agreement. I too found the erotic dimension of the characters' interactions compelling and I too was drawn into the overall atmosphere of the vessel making its slow but steady way through the landscape. We do not interpret the latter similarly, however. You give it a sort of Jack Kerouac "On The Road" reading whereas I paid more attention to the context of their labour; their scrap cargo, the cannal locks, and the harsh dispatcher who must be prevented by the first mate/clown from firing the love-sick skipper/husband. Rather than being free spirits, these deck hands must work in order to travel the world. You are right that the wife is quickly disillusioned about the bright lights of the big city. But she isn't just returned to her husband. She is brought back to the boat. Her peasant naivete gone, she embarks on a unique proletarian way of life.
As for post-production synching, you are correct that Fellini did that (in all of his films, I believe) because it freed him up to film on location without having to worry about how he was going to record dialogue. His films are certainly richer visually for that, though I find some of the discrepancies between audio and video jarring at times (he wasn't always terribly attentive to that detail). However, I'm pretty sure that the technology that allowed Fellini to do this was not around in Vigo's day, which is why there are so few scenes of dialogue in the more visually adventurous moments. It just wasn't possible. So I suspect that Vigo often had to sacrifice words at the alter of image during the production of L'Atalante.