L’Atalante (1934 France 89 mins)
Prod Co: Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert Prod: Jacques-Louis Nounez Dir: Jean Vigo Scr: Jean Vigo, Albert Rièra, from the scenario by Jean Guinèe [R. de Guichen] Phot: Boris Kaufman, Louis Berger, Jean-Paul Alphen [uncredited] Ed: Louis Chavance Art Dir: Francis Jourdain Mus: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre, Maurice Gilles
Silver lamè is still fashionable for evening wear.
– Radio commentary on Parisian fashions heard in L’Atalante
See? Tattoos keep you warm.
– Le père Jules (Michel Simon)
Jean Vigo was born with rebellion in his veins. His father, Eugène Bonaventure de Vigo took his infant son to anarchist meetings where, as Francis Jourdain recalls, “[w]hen the clamour of our voices woke him, his father, without even ceasing to gesticulate, would lean over the crib and rock his son to-and-fro until the kid went back to sleep” (1). Eugène’s pro-anarchist articles in La Guerre Sociale praised the mutiny of the Seventeenth Battalion at Narbonne and he was sent to jail for disloyalty to the state. After his release from prison in 1911, Eugène established the anarchist collective Jeunes Gardes Rèvolutionnaires which carried out a series of raids intending to sweep the royalists out of the Latin Quarter. He changed his name to Miguel Almereyda (an anagram of “there is shit”) in line with the belief of French revolutionary libertarian culture in the virtue of obscenity (2). Although he was only twelve when his father died, a similar combination of spirited anarchy shadowed by tragedy became a key element of the four films directed by Jean Vigo over his short but significant filmmaking career.
Vigo’s first film was a short, innovative social documentary inspired by the Soviet Montage cinema. Vigo describes À propos de Nice (1930) as a social documentary “with a documented point of view” (3). He then directed Taris, a film with swimming champion Jean Taris, in the following year. But it was not until he made Zéro de conduite in 1933 that Vigo’s full potential was recognised. Jacques-Louis Nounez, the executive producer of Zéro de conduite, selected Jean Guinée’s short story “L’Atalante”, for the director’s next project. Nounez provided a budget of almost a million francs; he also selected the established star Michel Simon for the role of the barge’s mate, le père Jules, and the rising star Dita Parlo for the heroine Juliette. Nounez also negotiated a production and distribution deal with Gaumont Studios. When Vigo first read the script he was unimpressed: “Mais qu’est-ce que tu veux que je foute avec ça, c’est un scénario pour patronage?” (4) Vigo transformed the script to emphasise the darkness of this fairy tale romance played out across an ethereal, hallucinatory elemental landscape. The title refers to the Amazonian heroine Atalanta who challenged potential suitors to a footrace. Atalanta usually won (and sometimes even killed her competitors), but she was finally beaten by Melanion who distracted her by throwing golden apples in her path. In Vigo’s film the heroine is re-imagined as a woman caught between traditional feminine roles and her curiosity for the licentiousness of the modern city.
With Boris Kaufman (5) as the director of photography, L’Atalante becomes a startlingly beautiful depiction of the honeymoon on the barge as it sails along the canals south of Paris. Vigo and Kaufman’s visual style is characterised by long, mobile shots of contradictory action. Dressed in her wedding gown, Juliette becomes a luminous white character, walking against the flow of the water as she steps carefully along the top of the barge. A dense fog envelops the barge, forcing navigation by the sound of the barge’s bell. Rain drives characters to take shelter in the cabins below deck. As Marina Warner has noted, the edges of the frame often dissolve to suggest what is visible beyond them (6). L’Atalante unfolds in oblique fragments that suggest much more than is shown. In its use of framing, discontinuous movement, as well as experiments with sound, L’Atalante is close to “pure cinema”, a formal and sometimes abstract exploration of the visual and aural specificities and possibilities of the medium.
L’Atalante is a film infused with ambivalence towards modernity. The initial wedding scene highlights Juliette’s desire to leave her rural home for the excitement promised by the big city. Juliette and Jean (Jean Dasté) lead a procession from the church, walking across the stone streets of the small town, around pointed haystacks, across grassland towards the water. The bride and groom step over seemingly impossibly varied terrain, violating spatial coherence and rendering the rural landscape as a site of surreal transcendence. The couple’s indirect, but deliberate movement towards the barge/city is accompanied by resentful comments from the bridal party. The ambiance of the crowd is funereal rather than celebratory; one woman asks why Juliette couldn’t marry a local boy, another notes that she couldn’t wait to get away from the small town. Whilst the crowd focuses on the couple, when Juliette boards the barge riding across the bank on a pole, she steadfastly looks off into the distance, away from the crowd.
Juliette is a character with a singular vision right from the beginning of L’Atalante. She is convinced that Jean is her true love because, as a child, she had a prescient vision of his face when she opened her eyes underwater. But in the first moments of her marriage Juliette is confronted by a conflict between traditional feminine roles and a desire for the agency and excitement that the modern city seems to promise. Whilst she contributes order to the disarray on the barge, insisting on washing clothes and sheets on the first day of her honeymoon, Juliette also becomes captivated by her imaginings of the city, its spaces, sounds, movement, people and attractions, as well as the mechanical devices of modernity. This becomes a source of conflict for her and Jean, initially signaled by his violent gesture of almost breaking the radio to interrupt Juliette who is mesmerised by its description of modern Parisian women’s fashions. In a revision of aspects of the Bluebeard fairytale, where the husband gives his wife the key to the bloody chamber but prohibits her entry, Jean takes Juliette into the city, but refuses to allow her to experience its pleasures. Imagining the “shock of the new” lures and captivates Juliette. Juliette’s eyes and ears are initially attracted to le père Jules’ display of artifacts, then to the peddler’s oversized suitcase (labeled “fancy stuff within”), and finally to the image of herself as part of modernity. Picturing herself as a feminine incarnation of Walter Benjamin’s modern flâneur, Juliette sees herself as a participant/observer as she imagines her reflection projected amongst the attractions displayed in the shop windows of Parisian arcades.
All four characters reflect something about the “other” in L’Atalante, but the most compelling connection is between le père Jules and Juliette. For Juliette, le père Jules is the most significant of all the characters that introduce her to the attractions of the modern and the exotic. Le père Jules proudly displays his collection of decrepit mechanical toys: wind-up musical instruments; puppet shows and a broken gramophone. Le père Jules is also surrounded by a range of superstitious icons: mirrors and horseshoes; the elongated skeleton of a sawfish; a Navaho knife used in death matches; erotic photographs and even a bottle containing the preserved hands of a friend. Le père Jules is literally marked by his experience, his heavily tattooed body revealed bearing the letters MAV (“Mort aux Vaches” – “Death to the Pigs”, a slogan appropriated by French anarchists). Inserting a cigarette into his navel, he produces the illusion of the face etched into his belly smoking a cigarette. A trickster, le père Jules animates his range of automata. The exhibition of souvenirs becomes a catalyst for Juliette’s curiosity. As he tries on her dress so that she can pin the hem, he becomes Juliette’s feminine ally. When le père Jules cuts his hand while demonstrating his knife, Juliette’s tongue flicks out in a moment of eroticised, visceral desire. Interestingly, le père Jules offers Juliette an erotic licentiousness that her new husband cannot. Whilst le père Jules, the pirate, defines himself by a collection of fragmented memories from disparate places, times and cultures, Juliette has no equivalent. But it is not until the final sequences of L’Atalante that le père Jules displays his solidarity with Juliette. Finding her working in a music shop, he then reasserts his difference by exerting the physical strength of a fairytale ogre when lifting her over his shoulder and carrying her back to the barge like a sack of potatoes.
L’Atalante’s style is an aesthetic combination of social-realism and surrealism, with the influence of the latter most evident in the representation of desire through the imagery of dreams and hallucinations. Subtle temporal dislocation emphasises the otherworldly feel on board L’Atalante . Two of the most significant moments that reveal this dislocation, achieved through the contrasting influences of surrealism and Soviet montage cinema, are actuated by the juxtaposition of visually poetic shots that link the estranged couple across disparate spaces as they dream of one another. Shot through filters the distanced hero and heroine dream of each other’s caresses. Later, Jean sees (or hallucinates) an image of Juliette in her wedding gown as he dives beneath the water, desperate to end the trauma of their separation (7). The use of this hallucinatory superimposition proves that Juliette is Jean’s “true love”.
Sequences of Juliette in the city emphasise her isolation within a modern urban environment. Once she has been abandoned, as Jean orders the barge to sail on without her, Juliette’s experience is one of estrangement and alienation. She finds herself in an industrialised environment and surrounded by human depravity. Menacing men follow her, one tries to steal her bag, and she is forced to the back of queues of people waiting for food and shelter. The dream of the modern city has turned into a nightmare of isolation. Vigo describes the dehumanisation of the modern city: “What anguish one feels in this race before a maze of mirrors, which only yield up the image of our own image, always of our own image” (8). In a metaphor for the alienation of a burgeoning consumer culture, one that sells pleasure through new technologies, Juliette is finally discovered by le père Jules selling the experience of music to patrons who listen through stethoscope-like earphones. In this ordered environment listening to mechanically reproduced sound becomes a solitary and restrained experience. As her supervisor falls asleep at her desk, Juliette takes the opportunity to tune in herself; a pleasure in listening that was denied her on board the L’Atalante.
References to music also emphasise the heightened role of the soundtrack within the film and the changing experience of spectatorship brought about by the relatively new audio aspect of cinema. Vigo hints at the illusory role of music in the cinema when le père Jules is startled to hear a tune as his finger circles the tracks of a record. But music also becomes the catalyst for reunion when le père Jules finds Juliette selling tickets to patrons in a Pathé Chansons Palace. As he walks behind the counter and interrupts her listening, Vigo reintroduces the couple via an overhead shot of the mirrored counter below. An extension of this view becomes the final in a range of creative but eccentric shots that distinguishes Vigo’s film. L’Atalante concludes with an aerial shot of the barge sailing into the distance, depicting the reunion of Juliette and Jean and the continuation of their journey across the watery landscape (Vigo wasn’t present during the filming of this shot, the only time this occurred during production).
In distribution and exhibition, L’Atalante had a dynamic and stormy life. When post-production was completed in February 1934, Vigo and Nounez screened a rough cut of the film for cast, crew and associates in Paris. This was Vigo’s final public outing, he died later that year at the age of 29 of tuberculosis. Nounez screened L’Atalante for Gaumont executives and Parisian cinema owners on April 25th. The distributor described the film as “commercially worthless” (9) and demanded substantial changes, threatening to sabotage the release of the film. In an attempt to broaden its appeal, distributors and cinema owners made prudish cuts (including excising the shot of le père Jules’ smoking tattoo) and re-named the film after Cesare Andrea Bixio’s popular song “Le chaland qui passe” (“The Passing Barge”). With the fortuitous discovery of a copy of Vigo’s original version in the British Film Institute’s archives in 1990, L’Atalante was restored. Vigo’s visual poetics, combined with the dynamic soundtrack, results in a film that can barely contain its passion and anarchistic fervour.
- P.E. Salles Gomes, Jean Vigo, rev. ed., Faber and Faber, London, 1998 , pp. 13-14.
- Gomes, p. 10.
- Gomes, p. 68.
- “What the fuck do you want me to do with this – its Sunday school stuff.” Vigo quoted in Marina Warner, L’Atalante, British Film Institute, London, 1993, p. 9.
- Speculation exists that Kaufman is related to Dziga Vertov. Gomes suggests that Boris Kaufman “is perhaps the third Kaufman brother, the youngest, but it is also possible that Vigo and Kaufman deliberately created a myth” (55). See also Warner, p. 52.
- Warner, p. 15.
- A similar sequence introduces Jean Renoir’s film The Woman on the Beach (1947) and almost ends Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). The rebirth scene before the coda of The Piano is structured along similar lines of desperation and revelation.
- Pierre Lherminier, Jean Vigo, Editions PLH/Filméditions, 1984, p. 23.
- Gomes, p. 187.