L'ATALANTE (1934) B/W 89m dir: Jean Vigo
w/Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre, Maurice Gilles, Rafa Diligent, Fanny Clar, Claude Aveline, Rene Bleck, Paul Grimault, Genya Lozinska
Newly married couple Juliette and ship captain Jean struggle through marriage as they travel on the L'atalante along with the captain's first mate Le pere Jules and a cabin boy.
From the Movie Diva website (www.moviediva.com), this 2006 article about the film:
"Juliette flees from her boring newlywed life aboard a river barge, deserting the man she loves. One of the screen’s transcendent love stories, sensual and dreamlike, was directed by a 29 year old genius who died before seeing it on the screen. 'This is the kind of movie you return to like a favorite song' --- Roger Ebert.
"Jean Vigo was born in Paris in 1905, to parents who were Anarchists dedicated to the overthrow of the French government. His father’s name was Eugene Bonaventure, but he used the pseudonym Miguel Almereyda an anagram of the anarchist slogan 'Y al la merde' literally, 'There’s shit!' His anarchism flowed into a republican socialism as he became the publisher of a still radical newspaper. Arrested as a traitor and jailed, he was discovered strangled with his own shoelaces against his prison cell bars, although his death was ruled suicide. He was 34, his son, Jean, was 12.
"Young Jean was sent to live with his father’s stepfather, a photographer, and it was no doubt here that his lifelong romance with the image began. He hated the boarding schools he attended, venting his anger in his film Zero pour Conduit (Zero for Conduct). His childhood was plagued with illness, foreshadowing his death by tuberculosis, or perhaps leukemia, at the age of 29. Vigo became enamoured of cinema, and was inspired both by the first serious writings about cinema in the 1920s and his participation in cine-clubs, which nurtured a love of film history. He fell deeply in love with another patient at a TB sanitarium where he was sent to recuperate, and he and Elisabeth Lozinska moved to Nice, home to the Victorine Studios, the French Hollywood on the Cote d’Azur. When the couple married, her father, a wealthy industrialist, gave the couple enough money so Vigo could finance a film independently.
"Vigo’s career consists of four films, his entire output as a director lasts for less than three and a half hours. His first three films were short, a personal documentary called A Propos de Nice (1930) about the French city, a commissioned study of a French swimming star, Taris ou la Natation (1931), a surreal view of a nightmarish boys’ school called Zero pour Conduit (1932) and this film, his only full length feature. L'Atalante was shot mostly on location, including scenes of a despairing Depression era Paris rarely seen on screen. But the film has a dreamlike quality, on a barge floating on the river, and it is a film celebrating life, even though its director would not live to see it in the theater.
"Vigo’s early films were uninfluenced by conventional cinema, perhaps owing their greatest debt to the magical films of early silent pioneer Georges Melies and his followers. Melies films were filled with the exciting discovery of cinema’s special effects, many of which were appropriated by the surrealist and avant garde directors of the 1920s. 'The sense of magic and its relationship to dream and fantasy are essential elements in Vigo’s films and the French avant-garde and early primitive periods can be seen as having contributed to him the basic techniques of a magical mode of representation.' (Simon) His films were quirky and personal. Zero pour Conduit contains distortions and ellipses owing more to avant garde films than conventional narrative. One of Vigo’s great admirers, unsurprisingly, was Francois Truffaut.
"Zero pour Conduit was called 'anti-French' and banned for its subversive attitude. But, Vigo’s producer was not looking to the bottom line, and had a fondness for the director, so he financed what would be Vigo’s last film, L'Atalante. Perhaps he hoped that a more conventional film would contribute positively to the young director’s commercial reputation. Vigo cast one of the actors in his previous film, Jean Daste, Dita Parlo, a well known German actress, another of her famous roles was in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion, and the well known stage and film actor, Michel Simon. Vigo and Simon, the young iconoclast and the established star would create a memorable on-screen collaboration.
"L’Atalante was the only film Vigo made which respects conventional narrative film, exploring sensual love and the conflicts that confront both the couple and those around them. It also incorporates an almost Surrealist world view, a 'poetry of the unreal' (Lanconi) and has an alluring strangeness unlike any other film.
"L'Atalante took 11 weeks to shoot, during the particularly harsh winter of 1933-4. Outdoor locations from Le Havre on the coast to the network of canals around Paris were complicated by both weather and safety issues (canals and bridges were sometimes frozen) and if outdoor shooting wasn’t possible, cast and crew rushed back to the studio to try to stay on schedule. Vigo was unflagging in his inspiration and enthusiasm, remarkable in the fact that it was no doubt during the harsh outdoor location shoots that he contracted the illness that would shortly end his life.
"The crew admired his tenacity and improvisation, Jean Daste, a personal friend, and Dita Parlo had a different relationship with Vigo than the more famous Michel Simon. While the other actors were agreeable with multiple takes, Simon told him, 'I hate doing a scene twice, the second time it’s necessarily a lie. Well, very few people understood that, apart from Vigo, Renoir and Guitry. Very few directors understood that the second time it’s already a lie.' (Temple). Simon's character, Pere Jules, seems frightening, demented and retarded in turn, but shows an unexpected sweetness at the end. There could hardly be a more alarming person with whom to share the close quarters of a boat.
"One of the most remarkable qualities of the film is the combination of the poetic and the documentarian impulses. The location filming on the canals gave the film an undeniable authenticity, and Vigo’s left wing sympathies with the common man fused into an unusual poetic interpretation that is rare in the history of film. Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francais wrote, 'Seeing his films, one realizes that he is much more than a director, that he wasn’t content just to learn the language (of cinema) that he wasn’t exploring a foreign country. He was born there. That’s why he makes films as easily as breathing. He sees, he dreams, he thinks, he writes, he lives cinema ... If the cinema is an art of sleep, there’s only one man who holds the key to dreams, Jean Vigo.' (Temple). The film played a great part in Langlois’ personal destiny, and by example, towards all of film preservation, for he said that it was seeing how L'Atalante was destroyed by the studio made him realize that he could never be as great an artist as Vigo, but he could preserve Vigo’s art. 'This is not to suggest that Langlois vision is inflated or pretentious. It is just that few mortals have ever been possessed by quite such an overwhelming love and knowledge of cinema as the fervour that ran through Langlois veins, and so to compete or take issue with the founder of the Cinematheque is like telling Saint John that his gospel needs toning down a little.' (Temple).
"Maurice Jaubert wrote the music for L'Atalante, as well as for Zero pour Conduit. He and Vigo met when Jaubert came to accompany a cine-club presentation (he wrote scores for silent films at the end of the 1920s). He would go on to write scores for some of the most important French films of the early talkie era, and he and Vigo became close friends.
"Vigo was too ill to participate fully in the editing of his film. Early versions were deemed unreleasable, and the studio demanded cuts to make the film more commercially viable and eventually, Vigo capitulated to the pressure, saying, 'Je me suis tue avec L'Atalante' (I've killed myself with L'Atalante). Three weeks after the unsuccessful release of the film, he died, soon to be followed by his young wife. The film had some good reviews, but soon descended into limbo. His death cancelled many screenings. Vigo’s version was revised, with many scenes being cut and Jaubert’s score being replaced in some sequences by a popular song, 'Le Chaland Qui Passe' which was also used as the title of the edited version. The film has quite frank sexuality for its time, the relationship between Jean and Juliette is undeniably carnal. Vigo’s films were banned in their entirety in France until 1945. There were attempted restorations in the 1940s and 50s, but the proper version of the film was only possible with the discovery of a print of the original L'Atalante, probably sent in error to London in 1934, at the British Film Institute in the 1990s. This restoration from that print was the first time a complete version of this film was widely distributed and L'Atalante was able to salvage its critical reputation.
"The plot of the film is unremarkable; the director’s vision is all. 'The power of L'Atalante is cumulative, as a series of what appear to be offhanded and quirky moments, both melodramatic and comic, culminate in a simple but shockingly moving moment of rescue --- from pride, from danger, from one’s self --- that is as sure to provoke tears on each viewing as is the single transcendent sentence that John Wayne speaks to Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers' (Wilhelm).
"(Sources include: The Films of Jean Vigo by William G. Simon, Jean Vigo by Michael Temple, French Cinema From Its Beginnings to the Present by Remi Fournier Lanzoni, Videohounds' World Cinema, edited by Elliott Wilheim, Oxford History of World Cinema, French Cinema by Roy Armes, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz.)"
Be forewarned: the following article contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film:
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Jay Carr: "Poetry and anarchy seldom are thought of as traveling companions, much less bedfellows. But they are both in Jean Vigo's masterpiece, L'Atlalante (1934). It landed with a thud when it premiered, but it's constantly being rediscovered and necessarily restored, since its original distributor chopped part of it away. Its last missing piece, unearthed in the vaults of Italy's state broadcast archive in 1990, cements its stature as a film that leaves you wonderstruck. Like Murnau's Sunrise (1927), it makes you feel you are sharing a dream with the man who made it. Or, rather, through whose being the films seems channeled.
"And yet for all its primal urgency and the rough textures of its everyday working world, Vigo's film was meticulously assembled. The spell it casts begins with an almost crude simplicity, a wedding procession walking at a fast clip from an old village church to a nearby riverbank and a barge, the name of which gives the film its title, moored alongside it. The groom, wearing a visored cap, immediately changes from his suit to the rest of his work clothes. After perfunctory goodbyes to the wedding gathered onshore, the captain (Jean Daste), his bride (Dita Parlo), the engineer (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) lose no time departing. The bride, smiling on her way from the church, now looks decontextualized, unmoored, a little lost, a little sad, as she walks the barge's long hatch cover in a wedding gown forlornly out of place.
"Clearly she hasn't known her groom long. Clearly part of her reason for getting married was to escape her provincial setting. 'Are you bored?' he asks, seeing that she obviously is. 'I'll show you the world,' he adds, placatingly. 'River banks,' she sighs, and their marriage festers. This is probably the place to say that Vigo avoids barge-tour lyricism. He was working-class poor, and concentrates on the claustrophobic barge life and the claustrophobic psychic space in which all co-exist, not the bucolic charms of the countryside through which they pass as they navigate canals, locks and rivers all the way to Le Havre by way of Paris. And yet Vigo, whose life was cut short at 29 by tuberculosis after completing this first feature and who died thinking he was a failure, has not become known as the father of French poetic realism for nothing.
"The barge, which has a lot of mileage on it, and the take-the-camera-into-the-streets approach that caused the film to be dismissed as amateurish when it opened and later was admired and emulated by the New Wave filmmakers, may look realistic (interiors were shot at Gaumont's studios), but the film plays like a rapturous dream. Vigo is too keenly aware of loss to ever romanticize the world of his films, but when the young wife, Juliette, storms off to make more contact with the bright lights of Paris after hubby Jean whisks her away in a possessive rage when he thinks her too receptive to the glib charms of a peddler in a dance hall, his angry sulk gives way to a catatonic depression. He does seem a bit of a pill. Bereft, he jumps into the river, ready to end it all, until he sees a vision of her while underwater and changes his mind. It's the scene most often cited by admirers of the film.
"And yet the scene that seems the key to the film, and the heart of it, takes place in the cramped cabin of the gruff old engineer, Simon (the best role of a distinguished career and the actor's own personal favorite). You expect his living quarters to reflect the grizzled roughneck of a character who drinks too much. But far from being littered with empty bottles and cigarette packs, the place is an enchanted cave, filled with exotic objects, souvenirs of his globe-circling life, many pictures of women, numerous mechanical objects, including figurines, some of which he has restored to working order, some of which he hasn't got around to. It's clear that he's not just inviting her into his cabin; he's inviting her into his psychic space. Far more resonantly surrealistic than the oft-cited underwater scene is this one in which he shows Juliette his assemblage of mementos.
"None are in themselves valuable, but they're surrealistically juxtaposed. In their arbitrary, capricious nature and apparent disorder, they amount to a rejection of the bourgeois world - much like the Dadaist and surrealist art of the era. Simon borrowed a lot of the coarseness of this film's Jules from the title role of Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), which made him a star in the role of a contentedly homeless ne'er-do-well and gave rise to the Al Jolson vehicle, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933). Simon's Jules is just as much an anarchic force as Boudu, totally uninterested in integrating into bourgeois society. He reminds us that while much has been written about Vigo the lyric poet enthralled by dreams and surrealism like many artists of his time, Vigo was in real life the child of a father who died in prison for his anarchic beliefs. His first short film, A propos de Nice (1930), subverted the travelogue. Once past the obligatory palm trees, promenades and joyless rich in casinos, he couldn't wait to cut to the working classes who lived in Nice's back streets.
"Although much in L'Atalante seems to have wafted up from Vigo's subconscious, it was in fact carefully planned. Vigo himself scoured flea markets and junkyards to get just the right blend of objects to embody Jules's cave of memories. Long before the end, there's no mistaking the reason Jules is referred to as Pere Jules. When Jean stops functioning, Jules steps in and saves his job. In the end, after Jean and Juliette have broken up and are reunited, thanks to Jules finding her while Jean sits and mopes, Jules emerges an archetypal father figure. Literally and figuratively, his charmed and charming Mr. Fixit lowers the lid on them (well, hatch cover) after they go below deck, together again. There's something transcendentally endearing about an anarchic figure, far from destroying his world, fixing it and bringing it back to life. L'Atalante is a spellbinding excursion, lulling you into its fluid, layered world."