The story follows Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of the barge L'Atalante and his new wife, Juliette (Dita Parlo). They are married, having hardly met, in Juliette's provincial town. The scene of their march from the wedding to Jean's barge is filmed in a discontinuous style that predicts the films of the French New Wave. They set out on a trip to Paris which functions doubly as a cargo delivery and as their makeshift honeymoon. Tensions arise with the crew, who are not used to the presence of a woman. Most of the conflict, however, stems from Jean who flies into a jealous rage, smashing plates and sending cats scattering every which way, when he discovers Juliette and first mate Jules (Michel Simon) talking in Jules' quarters.
Once arriving in Paris, Jean and Juliette go to a music club. There they meet a street peddler who flirts with Juliette leading to a scuffle with Jean. Growing disaffected of barge life, and enamored with the lights of Paris, Juliette runs off. Jean, furious, casts off, leaving her behind. He becomes very depressed so Jules decides to look for her and bring her back.
The original distributors cut the film's running time in an attempt to make it more popular and changed the title to Le chaland qui passe ("the passing barge"), the name of a song from the time, which was also inserted into the film.
L'Atalante was chosen as the 10th-greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound's 1962 poll, and as the 6th-best in its 1992 poll.
The much lauded cinematography was by Boris Kaufman. He would later go on to shoot great Hollywood films such as On the Waterfront. Nevertheless, he described his years working with Vigo as "cinematic paradise."