by Robert Horton

Somewhere on the criss-crossed, free-flowing canals and waterways of world cinema, a small barge called “L’Atalante,” launched in 1934, glides along even today. It always will; the permanence of movies bestows immortality on the vessel, and on the motion picture that carries its name, and on the fevered young director who gave himself so completely to film that he died from the giving.

latalante3People like to invoke the “magic” of film, but the truth is that movies rarely soar above the nagging, earthbound requirements of plot or realism. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, however, is a magic thing: luminous, suspended, utterly (even misleadingly) simple, much closer to a fable than a novel, and imbued with its director’s drunken infatuation with cinema. No wonder Francois Truffaut, surely the filmmaker most obviously influenced by the privileged moments of Vigo’s films, once wrote that with L’Atalante Vigo “achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece.”

It is somewhat miraculous that Vigo made the film at all. The director’s unhappy and sickly childhood was crowned by the death of his father, a left-wing radical, under mysterious circumstances while in prison for alleged wartime treason. After studying film, Vigo made two shorts, including A Propos de Nice, and then the remarkable featurette Zero de Conduite. Despite the controversy caused by the latter film, Vigo was rewarded the chance to make his first feature, from a traditional screenplay—a conventional story that Vigo promptly re-worked. Pitifully ill with chronic lung problems, Vigo had to direct some scenes from L’Atalante while lying on a cot.

The movie begins, like a proper fable, with a wedding. The blond bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is going off with husband Jean (Jean Daste) on his canal barge. They will travel and live with a cabin boy (Louis Lefevre) and an eccentric first mate, Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a tattooed ape-man who tells unbelievable stories of Havana, Caracas, Shanghai. On an early day on the boat, Juliette discovers that one of Jules’ many cats has had kittens in her bed— a curious omen, like an inscrutable sign in a fairy tale. Much of what follows is Juliette’s adjustment to life on the water: the lovers’ embraces and spats, the excitement of docking in Paris, the jovially peculiar world of Pere Jules. The final act of the story sees Juliette lured away by the appeal of the city, for a while, as Jean sails miserably without her.

As Truffaut observed, “Two of the major tendencies of cinema—realism and aestheticism—are reconciled in the film.” Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (the brother of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and later an Oscar-winning Hollywood cameraman) capture the absolute reality of waterfronts and smokestacks and human faces, with a naturalistic eye that reflects the British documentary film movement and predicts Italian neo-realism. But through some seamless alchemy, these sights are pixillated by Vigo’s commitment to the love story, which is tender and truthful and lovely. In one of many superstitious asides, Juliette tells Jean that if you open your eyes under water, you can see the face of the person you love. This leads him to dunk his head in a bucket and then dive into the river—and also leads to a dreamlike passage late in the film, when Jean, separated from Juliette, ducks in the canal and “sees” her floating under water in her wedding dress. Continue reading