“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.
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 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|
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|
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|
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 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|
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!|
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!