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.
People 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.
Vigo captures love in less expressionistic ways, too. There is a long-held close-up of husband and wife embracing on the boat that may be the most ecstatic hug in movie history—the joy and wonder and sexy thrill of being newly wed play across Juliette’s face as the accordion wheezes and Jean sings the song of the seamen in her ear. (If the incandescent Dita Parlo looks familiar, you may be remembering her as the German woman who takes in the escapees in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion.) But this is not a bowdlerized picture of love: Vigo also depicts the lovers squirming with undisguised erotic longing in their separate beds.
Then there are those elements of L’Atalante that defy rational description. The cheerful thoughtlessness with which Pere Jules tosses around his cats, the sight of a bride walking eerily across the top of the barge at night, the way Jean creeps toward the camera as a line of trees curve perfectly on the shoreline behind him—these are the glimmerings of a hugely original vision. Magic erupts in the most ordinary circumstances: Pere Jules, frustrated in his efforts to revive a gramophone, idly begins to trace his finger across the surface of a record…and music plays! Jules stops, the music stops; he fingers the record again, and the music starts again. In a moment we will learn that the music has been made by the cabin boy, goofing on the accordion, but Vigo’s point has been made. The world is full of marvels.
There is something seriously wrong with anyone who does not love Michel Simon’s performance as Pere Jules, the braying old salt whose cabin holds (barely) a lifetime’s worth of knickknacks. The monkey-faced Simon had just scored popular successes in two Renoir films, La Chienne and Boudu Saved From Drowning, and would remain a cherished character star of French cinema. He inhabits the role of Pere Jules with gruff authority, embodying the role of experience. Or is it innocence?
Simon’s presence in L’Atalante probably helped it get made, but nothing helped the movie be seen by audiences in 1934. Taken from Vigo’s control by an unsympathetic distributor, the film was retitled La Chaland Qui Passe after a hit song of the moment, and the song was added to the mutilated release print (thus covering up some of Maurice Jaubert’s marvelous music). It opened in Paris in September 1934 and closed within three weeks. A few days later, on October 5, Jean Vigo died at the age of 29, not knowing his film would influence a generation of moviemakers and eventually end up on international surveys of the greatest films ever made (the Sight and Sound polls of 1962 and 1992).
For years L’Atalante floated around in prints that critic Terrence Rafferty aptly described as “uniformly atrocious,” with fuzzy soundtracks and dialogue that was “often just a low rumble of undifferentiated sound.” In 1990 the film was lovingly restored by Pierre Philippe and Jean-Louis Bompoint, who found nine minutes of footage that had probably never been seen by any audience, ever. They even executed a delightful sequence indicated by Vigo’s notes but uncompleted by the director: as Pere Jules demonstrates wrestling holds on the deck of the barge, he flops about in a series of whimsical trick dissolves. It’s exactly in the spirit of Vigo’s playful style.
Why has L’Atalante exuded such a beguiling spell, even in ratty 16 mm. prints, even in incomplete versions? Certainly its simplicity makes it easy to relate to; somehow it feels like every love story ever lived—the joys, the jealousies, the rift, the reconciliation. It is a tale of innocence and experience, in a nearly mythical sense. The film is also a paean to the joys of making movies, to the uniqueness of what movies can do that the other arts cannot. And let’s not discount the allure of Vigo’s own story, the tragedy of a young genius cut down at the beginning of a brilliant life.
Lindsay Anderson, the English director whose 1968 film If… was directly influenced by Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, put this film in its proper place. Writing at the time of the 1990 restoration of L’Atalante, Anderson said of Vigo and his final statement: “He left a film that opposes, more wholly and more beautifully than any I can think of, the conception of cinema that largely obtains today—a cinema of sensation, of technical display, of coarse (however sophisticated) commercialism. Vigo’s cinema is intimate and personal, its ideas always poetic. The only violence is that of truthful, whole-hearted feeling.”
But there is something else. Some works of art are transparent, letting us clearly see the faces of the persons who made them. With L’Atalante, you are never in doubt that the creator of this work is right there, a distinct personality: wise, youthful, melancholy, ingenious, lyrical—a collector of things. A collector of moments. When we watch L’Atalante we see, as surely as Jean sees Juliette in the water, Jean Vigo’s face.