An Appreciation – L’Atalante
There are good filmmakers, there are great filmmakers, and then there’s Jean Vigo. In the history of great directors that have come and gone, Jean Vigo’s name stands in a class all its own. Very few directors have made such an impression on me with such incredible ease and simplicity. And he did so with only one film. L’Atalante (1934) is a movie that many may not at first point to as being one of the finest works ever made, but after one viewing of it, I was convinced beyond any doubt. But calling it a great work doesn’t necessarily describe the experience of watching it adequately. The film does not reach for the stars; it does not have an epic grandeur that so many others strive for. Its beauty is in its effortlessness, in its poetic sensuality and dreamlike realism. Within its minimalist, everyday-like nature, Vigo captured the splendor of life itself.
It’s quite the miracle that this is Jean Vigo’s only feature length film. He would tragically die of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine, making only this and three other short films. In fact, Vigo was deathly sick while making this movie, often times having to direct from a stretcher. Rumor had it that he was advised to slow down and take care of his health, but he refused. Possibly knowing that death was near, he had very little time and energy to complete his work. Vigo put everything he had left into this film, and seeing it again knowing that information does add a new kind of context. There’s a type of finality in every frame when we realize that the director knew that this would be his last project. But that is not to say the movie has a heaviness that detracts from it, certainly not. Instead, Vigo’s passion and love of filmmaking gives it breath and life, as if he was putting his own soul into it. There’s energy and zeal in every scene, a joy that runs through the story so palpable that we sense it without even trying. Many directors spend their entire careers trying to make their own “perfect” movie. Vigo did it before he reached thirty.
When describing the kind of style that Vigo put into his work, the first examples that come to mind would be the works of filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau—the kind of directors that care less about realism and more about ideas and fantasies. Vigo certainly belongs in this group, but not to the same extent as Bunuel or Cocteau. His work does not go to the point of fancy such as The Exterminating Angel (1962) or Orpheus (1950). Instead, his work is grounded in reality, where environments and settings have amplified sense of presence, resulting in a more serene state of being. The film was shot in France during the dead of winter, and this plays a major factor in the style and tone of the movie. We can see the breath of the actors as they talk, the cloudiness of the sky is apparent, and each scene has a kind of haze that gives off a wistful kind of mood. During night scenes, the heavy fog rolls upon the canal barge where the main story is set like a blanket, covering much of what we see, including the actors themselves. There are certain points in the movie where the fog is so thick we can only see the actors and not the ship. But this all adds to the beauty and poetic style of the movie. It may be a tad much to describe a film as “magical,” but for this I cannot think of a more appropriate term.
The tone that Vigo gives helps strengthen the story. The premise is fairly straightforward, involving a romance between a husband named Jean (Jean Daste) and a wife named Juliette (Dita Parlo). An interesting twist here is how we enter their relationship. The film begins with the two newly married, jumping aboard Jean’s ship to make their way down the canal for a makeshift honeymoon. Too many films involving young love follow the same pattern, with a couple first meeting, their initial romance, an obstacle they must overcome, and finally on to a happy ending. Jean and Juliette’s story begins at the traditional happy ending and moves on past that. We see the rocky and unsteady beginnings of a marriage, and we wonder whether or not they’ll end up living happily ever after. Being married and living together has its ups and downs, and that’s quite apparent between these two. Juliette has never been outside of her small town and is traveling for the first time. A nice little touch is the way she enthusiastically boards the ship by swinging onto it from its rafter. To her, everything is a new adventure, and she looks forward to each day with excitement and anticipation. For Jean, he never had a woman on his boat, and although he clearly loves her above anything else, he has trouble adjusting to this new situation. His life is now linked with another’s, and one of the main threads of suspense is seeing how he will be able to handle that.
While Jean and Juliette play as the main characters, the person who steals the film is the character of Jules, played by Michel Simon. Jules is one of Jean’s crewmen, and through him the film finds not only a source of comic relief, but also a source of surprising tenderness. Simon was not even forty years old at the time the movie was shot, but he plays a man who is much older and more experienced. With a face that is lined and aged, unkempt hair, and a haggard bend to his stature, Simon plays Jules as a person who has seen it all and has done it all in his lifetime. Jules has a brutish, unsophisticated style to his personality. He drinks, travels on the mainland to seek pleasures of the flesh, and has trouble refraining from saying or doing things that are inappropriate. However, there is more to Jules than what is on the surface. Underneath that tough exterior is a kindhearted person who tries not to do harm to anyone and is willing to help others however he can. He is an obsessive cat lover, and his numerous feline friends inhabit all parts of the ship. One of the best scenes in the film is when Jules shows Juliette his cabin, and through all of the little trinkets and dolls and souvenirs that he has acquired in his lifetime, we see a man who has been all around the world, and has a surprising sense of gentleness underneath his gruff exterior. Jules and Juliette never have any kind of romantic relationship, but there is a sort of “beauty and the beast” type of dynamic in their scenes together.