Written by Anthony Gagnon
Consistently hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, but mostly relegated to film schools and the most obsessive of cinephiles in the US, L’Atalante is a masterpiece of poetic realism and its director, Jean Vigo, is an unsung progenitor of auteur cinema. He was so audacious, and had such a distinct worldview for his time, that the current cinematic model, even in Hollywood, of director-driven films can be directly attributed to him in a significant capacity. Not only does the film embody what makes the cinema such a powerful and mesmerizing medium, but the story behind the making of the film and Vigo’s life, tragically cut short by tuberculosis shortly after the film’s completion, pushes the film into legendary territory.
The plot of the film concerns a newly wedded couple Jean and Juliette, played wonderfully by Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo. After the wedding, they quickly decide to spend their honeymoon working on L’Atalante, a commercial barge, with the eccentric Père Jules and his cabin boy. What unfolds is a tale of the joys and difficulties of newly formed love as they get to know each other more deeply. Jean is a more stoic, patriarchal person, and Juliette is more full of wonder and energy. Perhaps their opposite personalities are what brings them together, or maybe the social proximity of living in a small town has something to do with it. Nevertheless, they love each other despite not quite seeing eye to eye.
The style of the film is part of a movement known as “poetic realism” that was popular in France in the 1930s. The films frequently depicted ordinary characters in real-life situations but used film techniques to emphasize the wonder and whimsy that can be a part of this lifestyle. An example is the opening sequence to the film, which is edited out of chronological order to show the change in lifestyle these two people are about to encounter. This was something that was very innovative for its time, as the concept of editing in general was still in its infancy and continuous editing had been the dominant conceptual framework, due to film still being a sort of natural extension of live theater at this point.
Other stylistic innovations are abound in the film, such as the mix of realistic with the avant-garde, with scenes frequently moving into the bizarre and unexplained. A perfect example of this is when Juliette finds a jar of human hands on a bookshelf in Père’s cabin. He explains that they belong to his friend, and that’s all he has left of him. It’s never mentioned or elaborated upon ever again in the film.
Père steals the show here. His character embodies what can make cinema magical, in terms of just pointing a camera at someone interesting and watching him or her in awe. From his mannerisms to his facial expressions, he really gives it his all in the film and scenes frequently feature just his performance doing something goofy. One can quickly point to the extended scene where he wrestles with himself on the deck as a prime example. What he represents thematically in the film is a metaphor for loyalty, serving as a physical microcosm of the couple’s newly formed wedding vows and the broader concept of friendship in general. Jules is Père’s friend, and even though many times throughout the film Père actually sides with Juliette, he supports them both unconditionally.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the matte shot of Jules in the water after Juliette had left him in search for a more exhilarating life (or so she thinks). A setup scene occurs earlier in the film where Juliette tells him that if he submerses himself in water, whoever he sees in while he’s there is his true love. After they separate due to interpersonal conflict, Jules is so distraught that he jumps overboard into the river, at which point Juliette appears as a ghostly figure in the water, leading him to realize that Juliette is, in fact, his true love. If that doesn’t warm any viewer’s heart, there’s no telling what would.
It’s the concept of unconditional love that permeates not only the film itself, but the making of the film too, and the story of the making of the film is just as emotionally affecting as the film itself. Jean Vigo was the son of a famous anarchist named Miguel Almereyda, and most of Vigo’s life was spent on the run until Alemereyda’s murder in 1917. It is said that creative adults are child survivors, and it’s not too difficult to suppose this in Vigo’s case. While he may have been born with an innate amount of talent, certainly the reality of his childhood fueled his personal audacity when it came to his work, as he was born into a life where the system didn’t exist to serve him, so there was no need to pander to anyone in it.
Vigo’s earlier film, Zero for Conduct, was an unflinching look at systematic oppression in the context of the French school system. That film frequently features forays into the anarchic and avant-garde, such as scenes of animation for no reason. One can watch it and undoubtedly recognize a very personal, unique style even today, but it was ultimately a very heady, political piece that was actually banned in France for a long period of time.
A few months before the development of L’Atalante, Vigo had unfortunately contracted tuberculosis, which was a deadly illness at the time. Newly aware of his own mortality, it’s clear he had a change of heart and decided that the only thing important in his life was loving, especially his wife Lydou, as much as possible. To watch L’Atalante is to witness a master artist experiencing this change of heart, as his style is used to incredibly powerful effect to illustrate his own world view: love one other despite the differences.
This universal message and bold, personal style affected Francois Truffaut in the 1950s, and the French New Wave was an entire movement centered around the director being the master artist of sorts and the film writing, production, and editing being his or her canvas. Up until that point in history, especially in Hollywood, producers had been considered the creative minds of films, and the director was just another cog in the complex system. When the French New Wave began championing the deeply personal style and message that Vigo embodied and incorporating the attitude into their own work, they completely revolutionized the industry, and it continues to be true today. One can look no further than popular auteur directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to see this in our contemporary world.
Vigo tragically succumbed to his tuberculosis and passed away far too soon at the age of 29 shortly after L’Atalante’s release. Film, by its nature, is generally too complex and collaborative of a creative endeavour for anyone to be considered a “prodigy” in it, but Jean Vigo is about as close as anyone will ever get to earning that title. To watch the film now is to witness a document of a one of a kind personality making a one of a kind work of art.