Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Jean Vigo's uncanny L’Atalante (1934)

“It’s a banal story, but it all depends on how you tell it…” Albert Riéra to Jean Vigo in 1933.

After the uproar caused by Vigo’s incendiary Zero de Conduit, studio bosses hoped to recoup their losses by giving the young firecracker a more straightforward script to film. Much had been invested in Vigo and the banning of his first feature had been costly, now it was hoped he would produce more populist fare based on the story of young love on a barge.

But Vigo was not so easily tamed, much to his paymasters’ chagrin and you have to wonder if any film-maker and film has ever been more unfairly treated? Gaumont got cold feet after the initial viewing – it seemed too unevenly paced and raw. They cut the film down by 20 minutes – creating a confused mess with the “long” sections left in and interesting moments curtailed. They also re-titled it after a famous popular song of the time, Le Chaland Qui Passe… but it failed to produce the hit they wanted. Vigo, terminally ill with tuberculosis, was powerless to protect his work and passed away soon afterwards.

Jean Dasté
It took many years and the chance discovery of an intact original 1934 cut at the BFI for the film to be restored to something close to Vigo’s original vision. The restoration team consulted as many survivors of Vigo’s crew as they could and the result is what we see now: generally accepted to be one of the best films ever made.

That’s usually a heavy burden to carry but the distinct qualities of Vigo’s work shine through and the almost silent pacing makes this a haunting and still moving film. There are imperfections but that’s – really – part of the charm.

The film starts with the marriage of a bargee Jean (Jean Dasté) to Juliette (Dita Parlo) who has, as her mother says, “…never even left the village before”. There’s a marvellous sequence as the couple walk ahead of their gossipy guests through the village, across the fields and down to the boat. As this quirky procession takes place, Jean’s colleagues, Père Jules (Michel Simon) and cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) run ahead to try and prepare a welcome in slapdash fashion.

Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo
Juliette paces the decks of her new home, pure white silken white dress in stark contrast to the bible black boat. She appears unsure and recoils after Jean trips but the two embrace and he carries her to their cabin. So begins her process of fitting into this cramped floating world, with its constant interruptions and the strangeness of Père Jules and his ever-expanding collection of cats. 

Juliette tells Jean that if he opens his eyes underwater he will see his true love just a she “saw” him when she was younger. He makes a joke of this but sees nothing… later he will try much harder: the films’ central motif  about the alignment of their marriage.

Juliette explores her new world
Juliette is tempted by the sounds of Paris on their radio… she and Jean argue over the distraction and shortly afterwards she hides from him in the fog – a foretaste of what is to come. As he paces the decks we can still see her, an interesting touch suggesting that emotional and not physical distance is the main issue.

Then there is a marvellous sequence in Père Jules’ cabin when Juliette learns of his adventures: he has travelled the World and she is fascinated with the relics of his travels. Jean is angered and takes it out on the older man, but it is Juliette he is concerned with. Père Jules takes his revenge by robbing the couple of a night out in Paris, as he goes off on his own adventure.

Michel Simon and Dita Parlo
Vigo encouraged his actors to improvise, telling Michel Simon “…write what you like. It can only be better than a writer would doc…”. They fitted the dialogue and the action around the objects they found, the puppet, the two hands pickled in a jar…all contributed to the nervy freshness of the narrative. Simon told Vigo that he hated to rehearse a scene twice – “the second is always a lie” – and so their working method was perfectly in tune.

Next day, Juliette gets her chance to see Paris and is again distracted by another man. Gilles Margaritis does a wonderful turn as the peddler, almost cycling into the Seine as he arrives huge suitcase across his back wobbling down the embankment at break-neck pace. His song to Juliette was shot over 20 times as he struggled to remember the words whilst the chaotic fight scene after he grabs her for a dance also had to be re-shot many times.. “my back still hurts!” he complained in a later interview.

Gilles Margaritis comes between Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo
They return to the boat but Juliette wants to see more and sneaks off to walk the city and, in a fit of pique Jean sails off leaving her behind and alone. The producers just couldn’t stop Vigo dealing with darker issues and Juliette is constantly under threat as she wanders alone. A wretch grabs her handbag at the station and is quickly charged down and brutally attacked… we are in no doubt that desperation drove him to the crime and the vengeance of the crowd seems motivated by spite not justice.

The film was shot through the harsh winter of 1933-4 and Vigo improvised around the elements as they found him… he added smoke to make the best use of fog and showed a line of workers in the snow outside the factory, as Juliette looks for work and accommodation.

Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre and Michel Simon
Jean is miserable and falls into a deep depression, almost losing his job as he ceases to function. In the end he dives into the canal in search of his true love, clearing his mind as he has a vision of his bride. Dasté’s brave submersion was originally filmed in the autumn but had to be re-shot in December after the crew had cleared the water of ice.

Jean now knows how strong his love for Juliette is, but can they be re-united? There’s not a dry eye in our living room at the conclusion…

Jean sees Juliette
Vigo took this simple tale and made it unique…there are so many beautiful images – Juliette’s pacing the deck in her wedding gown, Jean’s underwater quest for his love and the docks and waterways. 

The lead actors are superb with Simon energetically repellent, unflinching but also very funny as he improvises the grotesqueries of Père Jules’ character.  Dasté shows grit as he ranges from the easy-going confidence of masculine control to out-of-his-wits desperation once he realises what he has lost – a haunted man who watches and watches, running into the sand at Le Harve as if he is prepared to go to the ends of the Earth.

Dita Parlo's smile

Dita Parlo radiates innocence and joy but also supreme vulnerability: she is ecstatically connected to Jean, her face shining with the brightest of smiles when they connect but totally miserable in their enforced separation.

“We were put in a situation and had to depict it truthfully,” Dasté said later. Of all the couples in cinematic history, you want it to work out for these two!

The original soundtrack from Maurice Jaubert is also worthy of mention, it’s not what you’d expect of the time and sounds like the more pastoral aspects of King Crimson… distorted strings, flute and oboe sounding like a mellotron decades before it was due. Sad, timeless tunes that perfectly fit the story.

Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté: do try this at home!
I watched Artificial Eye’s Jean Vigo Collection which features all of the director’s work on two DVDs and the 2001 restoration of L’Atalante.

Amongst the extras is a precious film Filmmakers of Our Times – Jean Vigo made in  1964 by Jacques Rozier. This features interviews with almost all of the cast and crew of L’Atalante, including co-writer and producer Albert Riéra. All  give fascinating insights into the making of the film as well as Vigo.  Dita Parlo, still vivacious in 1964, said it was impossible to explain Vigo’s character… whilst Simon, larger than life as you’d expect, obviously had huge respect for the young director. 30 years on, all involved seemed to cherish the experience and to still mourn the loss of the man who had led them in this extraordinary collaboration.

There is also a 38 minute documentary on the film’s 2001 restoration as well as short features on the sound restoration and the introduction to the 1990 restoration.

It’s available from Amazon but I'm sure you already have it anyway!


  1. Wonderful masterpiece.


  2. Thanks Roy! It's the kind of film you fall in love with.