The beautiful film L'Atalante was the first, last, and only feature made by Jean Vigo, who died of TB at the age of 29 in 1934, just as a re-edited and retitled version of his testamentary work opened in Paris. Restored after his death to his original conception, L'Atalante has taken its place with Vigo's short works -- which include the anarchist schoolboy hymn Zero for Conduct -- as films that convey poetic fancy through the intelligent deployment of a plethora of specific detail. Here, a young couple begins a honeymoon voyage aboard the husband's place of employment, a barge floating down the Seine to Paris. Barge captain Michel Simon offers up one of the cinema's great eccentric performances as the tattooed Jules, who keeps severed hands in jars and performs magic tricks with cigarettes. Time and tide tick by as the couple drift apart, only to come together again in the film's delirious final sequences.
Seldom has a young couple's lust for each other been so convincingly conveyed by purely cinematic means: Apart, husband Jean Daste and wife Dita Parlo still thrash in their separate beds together, their erotic link intact thanks to Vigo's inspired editing. The young officer's overpowering memories of his wife in The Thin Red Line offer a recent example of the same filmic impulse -- Terrence Malick is one working director in line with the lyrical tradition Vigo exemplified, together with filmmakers as otherwise disparate as F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage, and the Soviet Georgian Sergei Paradjanov. Jean Vigo is the patron saint of struggling, truly independent filmmakers everywhere, and L'Atalante is a beacon for weary movie viewers caught in the undertow of formulaic banality.
L'Atalante screens Sunday through Saturday, April 4-10, at 9:20 p.m. (also Saturday and Sunday at 5:30 p.m.) at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley. Admission is $7; call (510) 848-1143.