Film history abounds with examples of unrealized projects by celebrated directors, movies trimmed beyond recognition by interfering studio heads and entire pictures lost to the unattended passage of time. But there is perhaps no filmmaker who embodies the lamentable condition of unfulfilled promise more than Jean Vigo. With just four titles to his credit, amassing a scant 163 minutes of total screen time, Vigo’s career — short and ever so sweet — is a tragic yet fascinating chapter in the story of cinema. The unfortunate situation is made all the more disappointing by the fact that his final film, 1934’s L’Atalante — an extraordinary achievement worthy of praise at any point in a director’s career — would be Vigo’s first and only feature-length release, scarcely hinting at what could have been. Still, while speculation has its place, more fruitful is the appreciation of what is. And L’Atalante is one of the finest films ever made.
As L’Atalante opens, the radiant Juliette (Dita Parlo) is newly married to Jean (Jean Dasté), a ship captain who only seems to express his satisfaction with the union once the couple has been supplanted on his billowing barge. Juliette emerges from the church as an angelic figure in luminous white, a soft-focus beauty emanating from the gloomy backdrop of her provincial village. The tenor of this conjugal introduction does little to suggest potential marital bliss; it is a sad, somber march. One may gather from overheard conversation that Juliette has never left home before, and that by doing so she is causing some community consternation. “Couldn’t she marry a local boy?” asks one of the townsfolk. “She always has to be different,” says another. It was, presumably, a rushed engagement, but it was an expedient decision that has, in any case, set the two upon a rocky road toward maturation. They will grow up, they will grow apart and they will grow together — there is only one way to find out if their love is meant to be. For better or worse, it will be the hard way.
It’s a tried and true scenario: a young couple from humble beginnings, confronting a downbeat response from those around them, staking their claim to happiness, encountering assorted obstacles along the way and rising from the turmoil as evolved, if somewhat scarred, individuals. If it is a simple set-up, that’s all the better. L’Atalante is a movie defined by it moments, images and emotive strength, not its ostensible plot. The basic narrative anchorage is but a temporary harbor from which Vigo and his cast can set sail on a metaphysical, pensive and deeply touching voyage.
Brought aboard Jean’s barge by being flung over a boom that is then spun in the ship’s direction, Juliette is now a member of the crew, alongside the venerable Michel Simon as Père Jules and a cabin boy played by Louis Lefebvre. This seafaring duo does their best to accommodate the clearly diffident girl, greeting her with flowers and waking her with song, but their efforts to make her time on the ship pleasant hardly assuages the fact that this is not the life she imagined. When not pestered by a canopy of springing, clinging cats, she and Jean share a few twinkles of youthful playfulness, but the frustration is pervasive: “It’s like this every night,” she says to herself (or the audience) as her new husband tends to his trade instead of her. This is shaping up to be a heartbreaking honeymoon.
Juliette is out of place aboard the vessel, and Vigo gives her a corresponding visual treatment to convey her anomalous situation. As in the village, her luminosity, now slightly dimmed by despair, casts a splendid sheen against the weathered grey backdrop and the industrial blackness of the rugged barge. But is this glow purely due to Vigo’s direction, or is it Parlo’s inexorable allure? Perhaps it’s courtesy of the film’s renowned director of photography, Boris Kaufman, brother of pioneering Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov and later the Oscar-winning cinematographer of One the Waterfront (1954), Baby Doll (1956) and 12 Angry Men (1957), among others. Or maybe, it’s all in the viewer’s perception, a magical combination of factors that distinguish the cinema itself.
Below deck — cramped, crowded, and dingy — Juliette tries to make a home of sorts, playing traditional housewife to Jean and his mates. But her attempts at domestic normalcy are not always welcome. She is referred to by Jules as “missus” or “boss lady,” depending on whether or not he is pleased or upset by her interference, and he complains the newlyweds are either always “smoochin’ or squabblin.’” Meanwhile, Juliette fantasizes about the places they will go and the people they will meet. Jules assures her they will see the sights; she knows this only means riverbanks. Spurred on by Parisian news reports that tell of the latest fashion trends, Juliette longs for the City of Light, but once they are finally there, it is darkness that falls. First, she is charmed and intrigued by a street peddler, who seems to personify the energy and the delirium of the bustling metropolis, then she is left stranded and alone. There aren’t many films that can compare to L’Atalante, but in this regard at least, F.W. Murnau’s equally sublime Sunrise (1927) may come the closest. It, too, is a gloriously poignant illustration of a marriage tainted by daydreams and the magnetic draw of urban buzz.
Possibly a descendent of his titular character in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Michele Simon’s Père Jules is a gruff, grizzled, mumbler, a bestial gentle giant who sticks a cigarette in his belly button to create a smoking tattoo-face and becomes absolutely giddy when serving as a mannequin for Juliette’s sewing. His backstory is an amalgam of bizarre highlights; his cabin is a “curio cabinet” of bric-a-brac leftovers from a life of diverse travels and no doubt dubious experiences (he keeps the hands of a “friend” in a jar). Parlo, whose expressive facial revelations are a significant measure of L’Atalante’s sensitive influence, had been in a number of films in her native Germany before this French release, and she would later work with Renoir on La Grande Illusion (1937). Often snubbed because of the overwhelming impact of Simon and Parlo, Dasté had so far only appeared in two films — Boudu Saved from Drowning and Vigo’s own Zéro de conduite (1933) — but he also returned to Renoir, first in 1936, with The Crime of Monsieur Lange, and then the next year in La Grande Illusion.
As strong as these performances are, L’Atalante is Jean Vigo’s film, a true auteurist statement with an indisputable imprint. His pictorial sensibilities had been evident since his debut short, a documentary called À propos de Nice (1930), which was followed by Taris (1931), about swimming champ Jean Taris, and Zéro de conduite, an astonishing film about a boarding school rebellion (it was banned until 1945 for its radical content). Vigo was a quixotic visionary, and his films, none more so than L’Atalante, exude an illusory sensation of wafting reverie. Just as the barge glides past the ethereal landscape, so too does the film itself drift from one scene to the next in a series of seamlessly episodic arrangements.
It was Jacques-Louis Nounez, executive producer of Zéro de conduite, who offered the Jean Guinée short story “L’Atalante” as a potential follow-up for Vigo. For his part, the director wanted to do a film about French anarchist Eugène Dieudonné, a defiant cause célèbre for politically-minded individuals like Vigo’s revolutionary father. Vigo wasn’t keen on the Guinée source and rewrote and generally refashioned much of the original script. Once production was underway, things took a turn for the worse. While they look wonderful in the movie, the cold and damp locations made shooting a grueling process, and Vigo became quite sick. Already prone to tuberculosis, he was bedridden for days on end, and once shooting wrapped, he took a vacation where he grew too ill to even fight against the cuts made to L’Atalante in his absence (based on a lackluster screening, Gaumont cut the picture to 65 minutes and changed its title to Le chaland qui passe — “The Passing Barge” — the name of a popular song at the time). Vigo never fully recovered, and by October of 1934, roughly a month after L’Atalante was released, he died at the age of 29. Though he was gone, his life and career tragically abbreviated, a series of restorations brought L’Atalante back from the brink, including a 2001 commission under the auspices of Bernard Eisenchitz and Luce Vigo, Vigo’s daughter.
Not unlike Zéro de conduite, L’Atalante has its surreal elements, its enigmatic single images and fanciful sequences that seem somehow otherworldly yet are imbued with an uncanny naturalism. Influenced by the poetic and social realism that distinguished French cinema of the 1930s, the film exemplifies what François Truffaut called “carnal realism,” discerned by a physical reality — real people, real situations, real places — but with an aesthetic that takes a fantastic bent. L’Atalante is a romantic film in two senses: it is, of course, a love story, but it is also a whimsical bridge to fantasy. And the two often converge, as when Jules is led to believe that by keeping his eyes open underwater he can see his beloved — he tries and miraculously does just that — or when he and Juliette, though miles apart, share a sensual, nocturnal embrace. Such is the transcendent power of love and the potency of ecstatic passion. Such is the cinema of Jean Vigo.
Watch ‘L’Atalante’ at FilmStruck.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.