“L’Atalante” - Jean Vigo (1934)

In his tragically short life, Jean Vigo was only able to make one feature-length film.  But that work, L’Atalante (1934), is one of the masterful creations in film history and makes us wonder what further cinematic jewels Vigo might have brought forth had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine.  When the film was first released, it was a commercial failure, which was largely due to the fact that after previews, the producers grossly shortened and reedited the work in a mistaken effort to make the film more popular.  Vigo, who had already been ill during the shooting of L’Atalante, was by that time too sick to be able to keep his film from being hacked up.  Fortunately, however, some earlier prints were later discovered, and a restoration of the film was undertaken in 1990, and then further in 2001 [1].  Even in its earlier, diminished state, though, the film began to attract a following.  Francois Truffaut, who first viewed the film in 1946, said that with L’Atalante Vigo “achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece” and that “he effortlessly achieved poetry” [2].  And the film’s reputation has only grown over the years. Today it ranks among the greatest films of all time [3].  Truffaut placed the film in his all-time top ten [2]; and the  British Film Institute’s 2012 international critics’ poll ranked it 12th all-time [4], while their 2012 international directors’ poll ranked it 22nd [5].

What is it that makes this film so sublime?  The story sounds simple enough – it charts the everyday experiences of a young married couple who live on a trading barge that the husband operates over French inland waterways.  But despite the realism of the setting, this is not a film  about adventures on the water or the working class; it is a story of love.  Even in the context of love, though, things are not so conventional.  It’s not a romantic story about falling in love or about finally reaching or rescuing one’s beloved.  This romantic couple are already in love and together at the film’s outset.  What transpires in the film is the evolution of their love, and it is told in truly lyrical fashion.  In many ways it explores in its poetic manner the true depths of ongoing love.

The way Vigo tells this story is key.  There is a strain of French films that is referred to as “poetic realism”, examples of which are Marcel Carné ‘s Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour se Leve (1939) and Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938).  These are films that moodily portray romantic passions in working-class settings; and L’Atalante is placed in the “poetic realism” category, too.  But what does this phrase “poetic realism” mean, other than to suggest that such films are objective and subjective at the same time [6]? There are, after all, stylistic and thematic differences between Vigo, Carne, and Renoir, and I would prefer to highlight L’Atalante’s uniqueness, rather than to lump it together with other moody films of the period.

One of the key elements of L’Atalante is the music of Maurice Jaubert [6]. This casts a lyrical spell over everything that happens, and it helps maintain the feeling that the entire film is a song dedicated to love.  Another important feature is the cinematography of Boris Kaufman, who was the brother of famous and innovative Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov.  Kaufman’s deft photography in sometimes very confining environments is remarkably effective.  Much of the film was shot outside on location, and Kaufman was presumably using hand-cranked and not-so-flexible cameras to do his work.  It all comes across in very fluid fashion, though, and this also contributes to the songlike tenor of the film.  There are many evocative shots, some of which I will mention below, that persist in my memory long after seeing this film.

The narrative of L’Atalante begins ostensibly as an overt journey of the newly married couple on their barge.  But the film’s real narrative scheme is an inner journey of love that is marked and punctuated by six troublesome quarrels.  Each of the quarrels is progressively more disruptive to the marital harmony, and our two connubial protagonists must make compromises in order to set things right.  A key figure in all this is the ship’s uneducated but well-traveled first mate, whose more experienced perspective proves to be a crucial ingredient to the couple’s  salvation.

1.  Newlyweds
The film opens with the just-married couple walking directly from the church in a local French village to the husband’s barge, where they will live. The young woman, Juliette (played by Dita Parlo), has never been away from her village, and there is a moody shot of her still in her wedding gown now pensively walking alone along the barge’s top deck. Although she may have thought of her marriage to her sailor husband Jean (Jean Dasté) as an act of liberation, she will soon discover the barge to be a very confining experience.  And she will have to share that space with the ship’s two other crew members – a teenage cabin boy and a seasoned old salt, first mate Père (“Pappa”) Jules (Michel Simon), with his unruly herd of about half a dozen pet cats.

She starts adapting to her new life by tidying up her living quarters.  And she amiably tells her husband that he should always keep up his eyes open when he puts his head underwater, because that offers one the opportunity to see an image of one's true love.  Jean makes fun of her silly notions, but she tells him that someday he will see that she is right.

2.  Quarrel #1
As they proceed with their work on the barge, Juliette complains to Jean that she is getting tired of looking at only river banks.  She wants to see a big city.  So Jean turns on his radio and tunes in a Paris radio station.  Juliette’s fascination with it prompts Jean to angrily turn off the radio, and they quarrel (Q1).  

So Juliette goes up to the deck and pouts.  Later, Jean goes looking for her on the deck, and when he finds her, he embraces her tenderly (end of Q1).

3.  With Père Jules
The film now shows Juliette and Père Jules getting to know each other.  She charms the scruffy old sailor with her innocence, and when she visits his cabin she in turn is fascinated by all the trinkets he has collected from foreign seaports.  There is an interesting bit here of Père Jules taking off his shirt to proudly show her his body covered with tattoos.  These shots help sketch out the coloful, sometimes irascible, sometimes avuncular personality of Jules.  But then Jean bursts in on them and blows his stack at seeing his young wife with Jules in his cabin – he gives her an angry shove and starts violently smashing Jules’s dishes (Q2).

4.  Arrival in Paris
When they dock in Paris, Juliette asks Jean to show her the wonders of the city.  But since Père Jules and the cabin boy have run off into the city first, Jean tells her that they must wait and tend to the barge until those two come back. This disappoints Juliette and makes her grumpy (Q3).  Later, however, she gets into bed with Jean and caresses him, thereby ending their quarrels.  This is another beautifully orchestrated shot of tender affection. However, when Père Jules returns late and drunk to the barge, Jean becomes angry again and says they will soon depart from the city, which causes Juliette to pout all over again (Q4).

5.  On the Town
However, the next day Jean takes Juliette into the city, and she is now happy again.  They go to a pub, where they run into a jovial but rascally street-performer/peddler (Gilles Margaritis), who openly flirts with Juliette about how he can show her all the marvels of Paris.  Then he drags the naive girl out of her seat and onto the dance floor with him.  This naturally enrages the less-flamboyant but now offended Jean.  He brusquely ushers his wife back to the barge and orders her to stay there (Q5).

6.  A Separation
But Juliette, a provincial girl, is still under the spell of the peddler’s invocations of Paris, and she decides to go out to see the sights on her own for a few hours while the others in the barge are busy.  Upon discovering her absence, Jean, perhaps thinking she has run away with the peddler, impulsively orders his crew that they should depart from Paris without her (Q6).

Juliette, after some random window shopping on the Paris streets, returns to where the barge was docked and finds it gone.  She goes to buy a train ticket to their next destination, Corbeil, but a thief snatches her purse before she can do so.  So now Juliette is stuck in Paris and begins to see the more seamy side of a city in the middle of the Depression.  Paris is full of unemployed workers and unsavory characters ready to prey on pretty, unattended women.

7.  Jean and Père Jules
Now the focus shifts back to the barge, where Jean is severely lonely and depressed without his love.  Père Jules becomes worried about his near catatonic boss, and wonders what to do.  There is a memorable scene here, of Père Jules playing checkers with Jean to cheer him up, that has a laughable conclusion.  Almost in a trance, Jean, remembering Juliette’s earlier claim that you could see your beloved by opening your eyes underwater, jumps into the river and swims below the surface.  In another truly memorable sequence of shots, he does see an image of a smiling and beautiful Juliette as he swims underwater.

That night Jean and Juliette go to bed in separate locations and have erotic dreams of each other.  This is shown in a celebrated montage of dissolves back and forth between the two romantic dreamers.

8.  Arrival in Le Havre
With Jean still in a depressed stupor, Père Jules is basically running the barge, himself, as it docks in Le Havre.  Père Jules, who had early on appeared to be only an eccentric lout, is here shown in his own way to be sympathetic to the predicament and increasingly responsible.  He saves Jean from getting fired by the shipping company boss and then goes off in search of Juliette. 

On the street, Juliette enters a song palace (which has record-playing vending machines), and she chooses to listen to the then-popular “The Bargeman’s Song”.  Walking by on the sidewalk, Père Jules overhears the familiar song and enters the shop.  When he sees Juliette, he picks up the willing girl and carries her out.  Then he takes her back to the barge, and the reunion of Jean and Juliette is a final emotive shot that provides a lingering memory for the whole film.  The sixth, last, and most serious quarrel has ended in the only way such quarrels can genuinely end properly – in complete surrender to true love.

So Juliette and Jean are reunited in total love.  There are no questions to be asked or explanations to be given about past behavior.  But we know that they have both finally acknowledged to themselves that they must be together.  These are their own personal realizations they have come to about their authentic selves.  Love is more important and more essential than any other experience, and it is something that must be held onto as long as possible. 

This great story is all told through the magisterial eloquence of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, Maurice Jaubert’s music, the acting of Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, and Jean Dasté, and, of course, the mise-en-scene of director Jean Vigo.

  1. Annette Insdorf, “FILM; 'L'Atalante,' a Slow Boat Bound for Lasting Fame”, The New York Times, (14 October 1990).   
  2. Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life, Diversion Books, (1978), p. 23.
  3. Roger Ebert, “L’Atalante”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (15 October 2000).   
  4. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  5. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  6. Luc Sante, “L’Atalante: Canal Music”, The Criterion Collection, (31 August, 2011).  

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