Directed by: Jean Vigo » Written by: Jean Guinée, Albert Riéra & Jean Vigo, 1933 » Region/Time: France, black & white, 89 minutes.
Starring: Michel Simon as Le père Jules » Dita Parlo as Juliette » Jean Dasté as Jean » Gilles Margaritis as Le Camelot » Louis Lefebvre as The Kid » Maurice Gilles as Le chef de bureau » Raphaël Diligent as Raspoutine, le batelier.
I recently had a short discussion on whether there were any movies that got it “right” with respect to relationships. One speaker suggested that only Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really managed to get across how difficult being in love can sometimes be, but I think there are a number of movies that manage to do just that. L’Atalante is one of those movies. The cinematography of the film brings a pungent immediacy to the canals of pre-war France. The poetry of Paris, the barge and the day-to-day life of small-town French living are captured with a soft, almost gauzy appearance.
L’Atalante tells the story of a small town girl, Juliette, who marries Jean, the captain of a barge (The Atalante). She comes from a small French town while he is a worldly sailor who travels up and down the Seine. They spend their honeymoon together on the boat with his first mate, Jules, and The Kid, a closet full of laundry and an endless stream of cats. She is not overly impressed. She is excited by their first days together – eager to see the wide world – but instead finds that life aboard a barge is boring.
While Jean is working, Jules enlivens Juliette’s days with his gruff and strange ways. He plays the accordion and checkers. His room is full of bric-a-brac including a broken Viktrola and his best friend’s hands, preserved in a jar. In one scene, he seems to be about to physically assault her, but she distracts him by getting him to model a dress she is mending.
One day, she hears a report on the radio from Paris and cannot conceal her desire to go there. Jean eventually relents and tells her to plan to go and see Paris. Unfortunately, Jules goes out on the town and boozes it up, so they are left on the boat. The major friction between the couple comes from a combination of his jealousy and her naïveté. She allows herself to be charmed and seduced by a Street Hustler. Jules becomes enraged and bans her from seeing Paris. She goes anyway, and he leaves her behind, believing her to have chosen another man over him.
Jean becomes completely despondent and, in what has apparently been a universal short-hand for depression for at least a hundred years, stops shaving. Juliette, despondent herself, finds Paris a frightening place, full of pickpockets and leering men. In a particularly poignant moment, lost in the city, she finds a jukebox store and plays a tune dedicated to sailing on the barge. It is through this song, which she first heard sung by Jules, Jean and the Boy, that Jules finds her and returns her to the barge.
Juliette was played by Dita Parlo, a popular German actress of the time. Her other famous role is in Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). The most popular actor in the film, however, is Michel Simon, who plays Jules. In his 30s at the time, he looks like he’s pushing 60. Born in 1895, the same year as film, Michel Simon said of himself “as misfortune never comes singly, cinema was born the same year.” An extremely popular stage actor, he had gained success in the cinema from early roles in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne and Boudu Saved From Drowning, as well as a bit part in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (#74)
Just as The Passion of Joan of Arc was once thought lost until the negative was miraculously found in a Norwegian mental hospital, similar tales surround the history of L’Atalante. Jean Vigo was just 29 while directing the film, often from a stretcher, as he was gravely ill. Shortly after initial editing was completed, he died of tuberculosis. Subsequent to his death, the French authorities objected to the film, as they felt it promoted “anarchism”. It was butchered down to a 65 minute version and it wasn’t until a full copy was discovered at the British Film Institute in 1990 that the full version was once again available.
Famously, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (Jules et Jim) saw L’Atalante and Jean Vigo’s other film, the short Zero for Conduct (1933), when he was only 14. It set him on his path to filmmaking. He has described the film as “smelling of dirty feet.” Roger Ebert argues that the “movie’s effect comes through the way it evokes specific moments in the life of the young couple…they will be the moments that memory illuminates fifty years from now when everything else has grown vague.” In the final moments of the film, the two lovers are reunited—their love an inexorable force that brings them together. It is a powerful and uplifting moments, although we are always aware that, although it may be their first fight, in all probability it won’t be their last.
Up Next in the Film Canon: The language of movie-making is forever changed by an audacious film student trying to find ways to shorten his first feature.