“What? You closed your eyes?…Don’t you know you can see your beloved’s face in the water?…It’s true. When I was little, I saw things like that. And last year, I saw your face in the water.”
Could it be that simple, to just open your eyes? Certainly not, but there is certainly something magically simple about love. In all its frustrating complexity, it never deviates from the simple constant of feeling.
Simple is a word that beautifully describes Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, one of the finest films to come out of the Poetic Realism movement in 1930s France. It tells a simple story, in a simple setting, with simple people: a village girl, who dreams of life beyond the shelter of her childhood; a young boat captain, who loves his boat, his wife, his work, and his second mate; and a cat-loving, raunchy simpleton, who lives in a world of his own making, a curio closet full of little tokens that, together, make up the man.
The village girl marries the captain, and they spend their conjugal night aboard the young man’s barge. On that barge they will stay, as they move down the river to the Canal de l’Ourcq. Along the way, that constant of feeling is ever present: the movie is far more concerned with what life and love feel like, rather than what they actually look like. In this regard, it is the purest form of realism.
Time gets suspended during their journey. At one moment, the girl seems happy. The next, she seems upset at her husband’s diligence at the helm. “He always does this,” she says. Always? We haven’t seen any hints of that, at least, not yet. There is also a moment later in the picture, after the captain has fallen into a state of depression. It seems like only a short time has passed. But, all of a sudden, we are taken into the company manager’s office, and the second mate is answering charges that the captain has been shirking his duties. Would the company manager really be aware of a few hours’ worth of melancholy? The alternative is more likely: the captain has been like this for days, maybe weeks.
What we ultimately get in this film is exactly what we get in life. The film doesn’t move with respect much for time in the traditional sense. It moves fluidly from one moment to another, just as our memories do. It doesn’t need to fill in the details between. We can do that ourselves, with the details that are given. There are those moments when the newlyweds realize that they have different approaches to laundry, or to sleep schedules, or to the coexistence of humans with a litter of cats. There are those memories that stick around decades later, like when they get in a fight over the second mate’s lewdness, or the mundanity of life on the barge. This focus on instances is even more profound in Vigo’s use of pacing in his montage. The various inserts of Parisian scenery—both urban and natural—are not drawn out. To the contrary, the film seems, at times, to rush through them. Again, the fleeting glimpses that life affords.
Jumping from moment to moment, memory to memory, Jean Vigo takes us on a journey into the heart of new marriage. Like the river in Apocalypse Now, the setting acts as a perfect metaphor. It is a commonly used literary device to place the action between two or three people in a tight place. It is also a commonly used literary device to put two or three people on a journey. The devices are used without triteness here. Aerial shots follow the boat as it slowly trudges through the gray waters. The camera crowds into small nooks and corners to sit with the characters in the cabin. It even follows them below the water, in dream-like sequences that blur the line between poetry and realism.
On the realist side of the film is its story. Adapted from an unproduced script by Jean Guinée, L’Atalante was written by Vigo and Albert Riéra. Vigo had a small oeuvre, but it was one rooted in reality. His first film, À propos de Nice, was a stunning silent short film documenting life in the city of Nice. Taris, an even shorter documentary film about French swimmer Jean Taris, came next, and it was in this film that Vigo would introduce some of his most iconic techniques, techniques that would carry over into L’Atalante. Another short film was released in 1933. In Zéro de conduite, Vigo utilized the selfsame form of cinéma vérité that would influence the structuralist documentaries and Neo-realist films that were made in later generations and in other nations, from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night to Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. L’Atalante was the next film made by Vigo, though he, himself, did not live to see it released; Vigo passed away from tuberculosis in 1934.
Perhaps it was his expedited and impending expiration, but Vigo seemed to have an obsession about life, and it left a palpable feeling of realism in his films. He manifested this focus on the real world by telling stories that were inherently humanist. In Taris and À propos de Nice, the humanism was both broad and personal. In the latter, he painted a stunning portrait of society at its most basic, in the former, he tells a visual story, even more like a painting, of a single man. In Zéro de conduite, his story of schoolboys’ revolution was an appeal towards the embrace of change in a world (like the city of Nice in À propos de Nice) that is mired in escapism. His vision was one of victory over subjugation, poverty, and even death.
This is why L’Atalante is such a standard of French Poetic Realism. His other films led up to this one, which more than any of the ones before it, pitted the classic heroes of Poetic Realism against the French modernity. In particular, this imagery occurs when the story really picks up. After a few rebuffed attempts to finally visit the big city, Juliette (the village girl who has married the barge captain) decides to bail, leave the barge, and visit Paris by herself. None of this is well-advised. She’s never been to the city. She’s following the tempting muses of a traveling peddler. She’s obliquely disobeying the will of her husband, Jean, who is used to getting his way (he is a captain, after all). She’s just a newlywed girl who wants to see the world for the first time.
Jean, on the other hand, is equally naive, and equally susceptible to whim. He is overpowering, which makes sense. He’s very young with a lot of responsibility. When his authority is challenged, he takes it personally. He is a man of passions, who lets Juliette’s departure get the better of him. In a foolish and angry gesture, Jean leaves without waiting for Juliette’s return. Juliette is alone in Paris.
In a gorgeous sequence, Vigo follows the two parties as they go their separate ways. The sequences with Jean are the ones on which the most focus in cast in critical circles. I will get to those in a minute. But, the images of Juliette, as she wanders the streets of Paris, should not be overlooked. Vigo’s cinematographer in this film, Boris Kaufman (younger brother to the great Dziga Vertov), photographed Dita Parlo in gorgeous shots that seemed to perfectly circumscribe the visual themes of French Poetic Realism. She stands in the foreground before shipyards. She walks past queues of workers, standing in line for a job on the waterfront. Before her eyes, the City of Lights is losing the magic that she saw earlier, when a shifty peddler made his handkerchief disappear.
Indeed, the line between reality and magic becomes blurred in the works of Jean Vigo. There are certainly a lot of magical scenes in L’Atalante. But these would mean very little without Juliette’s experience alone in Paris. I think that Vigo’s love of life was one which recognized the polarity that life has. I think that Vigo wouldn’t see this use of magic and poetry as antipathetic to reality. It is a part of reality. The darker parts of realness are those parts where the magic tends to hide away. But, there are the bright parts, too.
It is Jean who must learn to the see the magic, just as Juliette learns to see the world without it. Jean knows the magical world. She saw Jean’s face in the water before she even met him. Juliette was the woman who wanted to see the world. Jean was the man who wanted to stay home. In desperation, Jean dove into the water, and stayed under the water for a long time, eyes wide open. Vigo’s experience in Taris, filming Jean Taris from underwater, carried over into this movie to create one of the most beautiful sequences in film history. The camera stays stationary as Jean, played by Jean Dasté, swims in and out of the frame, continually moving up to the camera, where we can see his wide open eyes surrounded in bubbles and moving water. There is such focus in those eyes, they are the eyes of a person looking for an answer. And, like most spiritual wrestles, it takes a while. But eventually, the silhouette of his bride appears superimposed in the water before him, slowly solidifying in a wavy dance against a black backdrop. Finally, the camera rests on an image of Dina Parlo’s smile, in full focus.
Has there ever been a face more perfectly made for the movies than Dita Parlo’s? I don’t know, but she and Vigo clearly knew of its transcendence. The movie, which frequently plays like a silent film, is an exhibition of Parlo’s face.
The film is also an exhibition of Michel Simon, who plays the vagabondish second-mate, Pére Jules. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest character-acting performances in film history, and Simon’s scenes with Parlo in the middle of the film are at once the oddest and the most enlightening. Jonathan Rosembaum said this of Simon’s iconic role:
“[E]ven this performance would be substantially less than it is if it weren’t for Vigo’s superb sense of how to integrate him with everything else in the picture. At once the film’s only pure infant and its only pure adult, he embodies a kind of stream-of-consciousness, polymorphous-perverse behavior that perfectly exemplifies the film’s capacity to integrate fantasy and realty. His two extended scenes with Juliette in the barge’s lower cabins are perhaps the richest examples of this—delirious, free-form two-part inventions whose pivots are either props or phrases by Juliette that send him off into fresh paroxysms of play or demonstration.
The only remote equivalents to Simon’s character in the American cinema are the crotchety comic parts played by Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (a rummy named Eddie) and Rio Bravo (a cripple named Stumpy), both of whom play a major role in defining (not to mention cussing out and irritating) and ultimately uniting the other characters. But Brennan never quite transcends his function as comic relief, whereas Jules is much more central. James Agee compared him to Caliban, but in other respects he is even worthy of Falstaff.”
Where, in many respects, Jules’ infantile and feral nature is one of the driving wedges between Juliette and Jean, he seems to be the most adult of the figures on the barge when the movie reaches its end. He is the one responsible for the film’s happy ending. That happy ending is one of the reasons why this film stands out among others that were involved in 1930s French cinema. As I established in my essay on French Poetic Realism, the happy ending was an exception to the rule.
But, it was Jean Vigo’s determined humanism that wins out in the context of L’Atalante and that permeated the entire picture. I used the term “magic” a lot in the paragraphs above. I could have used the term “poetry”, or “fantasy”, or “dream”. But “magic” fits so well to describe the sort of hope that was infused in the otherwise dreary worlds of Vigo’s mind. He was an artist who believed the liberation that came from true love and freedom. He had a great vision, one that was unfortunately cut short.
Vigo’s battle with tuberculosis was long and arduous. By the time that L’Atalante was in production, Vigo was periodically found directing from a gurney, gaunt and pale. As the film progressed towards completion, Vigo’s lungs were disintegrating. He would die the year that L’Atalante was released, at the age of 29. Dasté recalled about Vigo, that he “made jokes all the time. Spending a day with him was wonderful and grueling, even a few weeks before his death. He was such a vivacious person.” According to François Truffaut, after being advised to do more in order to stay healthy, Vigo replied, in a beautiful manner, that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”
Indeed, I think, Vigo knew that life was shortly expiring, and he did, indeed give everything away as best as possible. He had to. According to Luc Sante, Vigo had more than twenty-six film projects on his docket, including several screenplays that he wrote on his own. Vigo’s vision, perhaps, would have been fully realized in those movies, had they been completed. But, that was never to be. The man had a vision that would have taken a very long lifetime to fully actualize. What resulted, according to Sante, was that L’Atalante worked as a sort of composite picture, a conjunction of two profound phenomena: “the headiness of an ascent” on one hand, and “the accrued wisdom of a terminal statement” on the other. Such a mixture of ambition and sagacity is at the heart of L’Atalante: a ballad-like reverie of young love, embedded in beauty and grace, which, like a mirror, reflects the entire crux of human life in less than an hour-and-a-half.