AT this year's film festivals in New York, Toronto, and Cannes, many people felt the best movie wasn't the new Japanese drama or the new Australian comedy, or the new anything. Instead their favorite was a lyrical French comedy-drama called ``L'Atalante,'' made way back in 1934 and being revived now in a restored version. Its arrival marks the high point in a growing wave of restoration-and-revival activity that has brought new attention to such major films as ``Lawrence of Arabia'' and ``A Star Is Born,'' as well as ``Spartacus,'' due to be reissued shortly.
``L'Atalante,'' the most rarely seen of the recent revivals, is the only full-length movie directed by Jean Vigo, who died shortly after its 1934 premi`ere. Although he completed just four movies during his 29 years - including ``Zero for Conduct,'' now considered a classic but initially banned by French censors - whole books have been written about his work and his influence on world cinema.
The reissue of ``L'Atalante'' is causing a special stir because, despite the film's legendary status, it has never been publicly shown in the form Mr. Vigo intended. Its first 1934 screening was for movie-business insiders, who pronounced it too arty and gloomy for mass-audience success - whereupon its producer, Jacques Louis-Nounez, promptly shortened it, re-edited it, and changed its title to ``Le Chaland qui passe,'' after a hit song of the day.
The mutilated movie failed to thrill audiences when it reached theaters, but its reputation among conoisseurs grew stronger every year.
Now the Gaumont studio in France, which originally produced ``L'Atalante,'' has come to the film's rescue, spending an estimated $250,000 to restore it. The new version was made from a 1934 print recently discovered by British Film Institute archivists. Gaumont compared this with 30 hours of out-takes, cuts, and other stored-away footage, replacing 10 minutes of lost material and making a new negative and sound track.
It's almost certain Vigo would be delighted with the result if he were here to see it. Modern audiences have already been delighted at film-festival showings, and more will surely add their voices as the film opens in theaters - not just because it's a classic, but because it's as charming a movie as 1990 is likely to bring.
``L'Atalante'' takes its title from an old barge that works its way along the Seine under the command of Jean, its young captain. He marries his sweetheart, Juliette, and they board L'Atalante to celebrate their honeymoon and begin their life together. But they have a quarrel, and Juliette runs off to shore, yearning to see the excitements of Paris and wondering if unmarried freedom isn't best after all. The crusty old first mate, played by the colorful French star Michel Simon, is the one who brings the lovers back together for a happy ending. - but not before all the characters have gone through various adventures and misadventures.
``L'Atalante'' displays the vigorous talents not only of Vigo but of his performers, including Jean Dast'e and Dita Parlo as the honeymooners; his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman; his composer, Maurice Jaubert; and a list of other gifted collaborators. Their movie is a quiet one, the very opposite of today's blockbusters. To savor it, you have to adjust your mood to the '30s, when life must have seemed a little slower and gentler than it is today - at least on a French river barge, where it's sometimes hard to find the line between everyday life and young, romantic dreams. Today as when it was made, ``L'Atalante'' is a rich and magical film. Dare I say it? They really don't make them like this anymore!