L'Atalante is one of a select group of 15-20 films that routinely appear on lists of the greatest films ever made, especially since its 1990 restoration. Part of the reason for this canonization is surely the fact that this is Vigo's only feature length film. Vigo died shortly after its release, leaving behind L'Atalante and a few short films: Zero for Conduct (1933), Taris (1931), and A Propos de Nice (1930).
I saw the film for the first time last night at the Seoul Cinematheque in a very good print. At a narrative level, L'Atalante is a fairly cliched love story involving a barge captain marrying a village girl and taking her with him to live on the Seine River. She grows restless and longs for a more exciting life in Paris, and he grows more and more jealous. She leaves for a night in the city, he leaves her behind, and eventually they are both miserable enough that the barge's sailor, Pere Jules, brings her back for a joyous reunion.
But what impresses about the film is the visual style, the alternating between documentary-like images of life on the barge and striking high contrast, poetic imagery. However, coming to the film for the first time I must admit I was slightly disappointed that the film lacked the anarchist energy of Vigo's earlier 40-minute short Zero for Conduct. The film works in making the audience feel the boredom of life on the barge, with the energetic and worldly sailor Pere Jules a much more appealing screen presence than the dull lead. But when Juliette finally leaves the barge, the film is unable to invest its cinematic energy with her. Instead, he concentrates on reuniting the couple. This leads to two of the more memorable sequences: a surprisingly explicit cross-cut between the lovers that clearly suggests mutual masturbation; and the scene where the husband repeats his wife's earlier story of opening his eyes underwater in order to see his true love. Vigo goes so far as to suggest that the husband must imaginatively open himself up to the world to regain his love, but this is as far as the film will go in breaking social convention.
The film's images certainly stay in one's mind, much like a silent film, which it at times resembles. But I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the film immensely while I was watching it.