L’Atalante (Director: Jean Vigo): The last film (and only feature) by director Jean Vigo, who died of tuberculosis at the ridiculously young age of 29, L’Atalante has long been on my radar. In fact, I bought the Region 2 edition of The Complete Films of Jean Vigo several years ago, well before Criterion’s 2011 release here in North America. Vigo’s story is tragic, but his influence has been immense.
Vigo was the son of a radical anarchist who was murdered in prison when Jean was just twelve. His adolescence was spent in a rigid boarding school, which became the subject of his film Zéro pour conduite (1933), a surreal tale of student rebellion that inspired later films like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). Already ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him just a few weeks after its premiere, he began work on L’Atalante, a project based on a short story about barge workers. Unhappy with the original story, he worked it into a uniquely enchanting romance that was grounded in an almost documentary realism.
The film opens on a wedding procession in a small village. The bride and groom are walking ahead of a crowd toward the riverbank, where a barge is anchored. We learn that the groom is Jean (Jean Dasté), skipper of the boat, “L’Atalante.” We also meet his crew, the grizzled Pere Jules (the incomparable Michel Simon) and an unnamed cabin boy, desperately trying to prepare the boat for the couple’s arrival. As Jean and his new bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) adjust to married life, the work of the barge crew continues. There is little in the way of a honeymoon, although Juliette at first finds the rivers a welcome escape from her small town life.
But trouble soon finds them, in the form of Jean’s growing jealousy and Juliette’s desire to see more of life than the cramped quarters of L’Atalante. When they arrive in Paris, she’s eager to see the city but he’s forced to stay on the boat when Pere Jules goes off for a night of carousing. Eventually, Jean takes his wife dancing in a suburb but becomes jealous when a pedlar flirts and dances with her. When he leaves her on the boat to run an errand, the pedlar drops by to beg her to run off to the city with him. Jean returns in time to chase him off, but, feeling stifled, Juliette sneaks away that evening to see the lights for herself. When Jean finds her missing, he impulsively tells Pere Jules to pull up the anchor and start the engine. The period of separation is one of the most poignant sections of the film, and the sequence of the two lovers in separate beds writhing in desire for each other is both daringly erotic and formally inventive. After the separation becomes unbearable, leave it to Pere Jules to go off in search of Juliette.
The film was not handled well by its financiers, who cut it down from 90 to 65 minutes, changed the title and added a popular song in an attempt to make it more appealing to audiences. Despite that, it was a commercial failure, and sadly, Vigo died just a few weeks after it flopped. Over the years, there have been many attempts to restore the film to Vigo’s original vision, and this version, from 2001, seems the most complete. Even so, there are places where it feels like something is missing, and on my copy (from Artifical Eye in the UK), there are quite a few passages of dialogue with no subtitles. Nevertheless, the film manages a rarely-achieved blend of lyricism and documentary realism. Jean and Juliette are young and passionate, romantic and impetuous. They quarrel and then fall into each other’s arms and it never seems artificial. Michel Simon is a force of nature, his character a rollicking and fascinating mess of a human being. He’s seen it all, travelled the world, and yet still has the innocence of a child. His scenes with Juliette are movingly delicate, as in the sequence where he shows her all the treasures he’s collected from his travels. And the sight of him with a tiny kitten perched on his shoulder may well be indelible.
Much of the cinematography is indelible, for that matter, thanks to Vigo’s regular collaborator Boris Kaufman (brother of Soviet documentary innovator Dziga Vertov), who went on to a Hollywood career that included On the Waterfront, for which he won an Oscar®. Combining the documentarist’s careful eye for real people with the surrealist’s gift for finding new angles to shoot from, Kaufman’s work here was influential on many other filmmakers, and he himself carried some of it into his later work for directors like Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet.
It’s amazing that a filmmaker so young, and so aware of the shortness of his time in this world, could make films so playful and yet so grounded in reality. Perhaps knowing his time was limited, he infused his work with enough energy to make it burn that much brighter.