Our review of The Complete Jean Vigo (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published September 19th, 2011, is also available.
"May be the greatest film ever made."—Georgia Brown, Village Voice
L'Atalante may not be the greatest film ever made, but it is undoubtedly among the greatest. Its masterful artistry is self-evident. The film is a jewel of parsimony, with no dead spots or unnecessary detail. L'Atalante's genius is fully on par with great films such as Citizen Kane, but it is imminently approachable. This approachability combined with unique imagery makes L'Atalante an arguably more successful film.
L'Atalante is undeniably art, but it feels effortless and approachable. It is the embodiment of a dream, a touching story of love and life. Those who appreciate cinematic mastery will likely fall in love with it. Those who can barely tolerate such weighty classics as Citizen Kane, take heart: L'Atalante is a classic film that may charm you.
Facts of the Case
I hereby present the facts of the case, with one caution: L'Atalante's beauty and strength are inadequately represented in a description of the plot. As Desson Howe wrote in his 1990 Washington Post review, "A bloodless description of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante would indicate a black and white French film, made in 1934, featuring a mundane boy-girl plot, a collection of French songs and a barge. But similar scrutiny would define a pearl as a layered piece of grit." The plot is simply a framework for haunting imagery, poignant humanity, and rich symbolic content.
Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) get married in her prosaic village, to the lament of her distraught mother. Forgoing any celebration or reception, the pair immediately board Jean's river barge, L'Atalante. They sail off down the river with Jean's crew: a crusty first mate (Jules, played by Michel Simon) and a young deck hand.
Juliette struggles to adapt to this strange new environment. She exerts control over her circumstances by doing the laundry and shooing away the ubiquitous cats. But she soon grows bored and restless. Jean tries to find a balance between managing the barge and pleasing his new bride. Papa Jules is dismayed by the upset balance of the ship. He both threatens and fawns over Juliette. The story centers around the complex relationship between these three.
When Juliette is beguiled by the charms of Paris, Jean believes he has lost her. L'Atalante sets sail, leaving Juliette to her own devices. But the decision gnaws at Jean, eating him away to a shell of his self. Jules knows that something must be done to restore balance to L'Atalante.
You don't need to know the intricate history of L'Atalante in order to appreciate the film. Although it is nearly 70 years old, L'Atalante has a surprisingly modern aesthetic. The story is timeless, the symbolism deeply rooted in humanity. Anyone who has known love or curiosity about new environments can be drawn in by the spell of this sophisticatedly simple story.
But knowing the history does add layers to the viewing. Perhaps the most important element to understand is the man behind the story. L'Atalante is Jean Vigo's one and only feature length film in a short body of work. Jean was the son of a notorious French anarchist who died in prison. Prior to making L'Atalante, Vigo created a short film called Zero for Conduct. This film horrified the French cinema authorities, who decried its subversive anarchist bent. Zero for Conduct was banned from view for over 13 years. The wary eyes of the authorities and studio were intently focused on the production of L'Atalante. But that was the least of Vigo's problems. Vigo knew that he was dying. He was certain (though others didn't know) that L'Atalante was going to be his first and last feature film. It was his one chance to make a statement about humanity, his defining artistic moment. Directing from a stretcher in a feverish stupor, Vigo poured the full measure of his soul into the film. He died days after the film closed at the age of 29. To say the least, L'Atalante was created under intense circumstances.
The resulting film was so unsettling that it took half a century for the original cut of the film to be shown. Before it was even released, censors shredded L'Atalante. Parisian audiences met the neutered "happy" version with disdain, offended at the insightful portrayal of Paris. Truth can hurt; while L'Atalante was being shown for the first time, anarchists were rebelling in Europe, people were dying of hunger and cold in Paris, and deep corruption in the economic and political systems of France was uncovered. The deceptively inoffensive story did not mask Vigo's piercing social commentary.
L'Atalante suffered edit after edit, becoming nearly unrecognizable. Even in such a state, it garnered critical acclaim. The discovery of a 1934 cut of the film in a British vault in 1990 gave hope to those who wanted Vigo's version restored.
L'Atalante has deeply influenced such disparate artists as Truffaut and Madonna. Truffaut summarized his thoughts on the visionary film in a simple statement: "When Jean Vigo shot L'Atalante…he achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece." Madonna's homage is more personal. She based her notorious book Sex on the personae Vigo imbued into the seductive Juliette. Madonna was so impressed with Dita Parlo that she had the initials "D.P." engraved into her gold tooth.
It was only in 2001, after a careful restoration and re-creation, that Vigo's original vision was realized. The current version of L'Atalante is not actually the intended edit of the film. First, Vigo died before he could make the final cut. Second, the current version is a best guess culled from the 1990 find and 30 hours of unedited rushes and outtakes. It is as close as we will likely ever come. And now, the film has been brought to us on DVD.
So much for the back story, what is the film like? L'Atalante has a singular cinematic fingerprint. Though the entire story is told with complete realism, it feels dreamlike and surreal. Lyrical and hypnotic, the film draws you in with languid sensibility.
The cinematography certainly contributes to the dreamlike quality. Cameraman Boris Kaufman is responsible for this humbling work of art. Impressive contrast, poetic lighting, and impeccable composition combine to form an indescribably delicate whole. In rewatching L'Atalante, I paused frequently to observe the quality of the image. Though I paused almost at random, each still frame spoke its own story. The stills from this film could compete in any photography exhibit. Bold shadows, dramatic textures, interplays of light and dark, and fascinating compositions elevate the photography from mere storytelling to irrefutable art. And this is while paused. When the picture comes alive again, the movement is a current of fantastic imagery.
Imagery is only part of the story. Jean Vigo's direction imbues each scene with submerged meaning that is more telling than the surface suggests. Let's look at an example.
Juliette rebuffs Jean's clumsy attempt to consummate their union, and flees to the other end of the barge through the fog. Her walk down the barge may be one of the most memorable shots in film history. Dita Parlo glides, naïve and wraithlike, along the rusty iron deck of the barge. The white silk of her dress flutters in the wind, clinging to her from the spray of the water. Barely visible against the stormy gray sky are imposing silhouettes of bridges and buildings. Anonymous vessels churn the water aside L'Atalante. She reaches the end of the vessel, stands erect and radiant, and peers into the gloomy fog.
Jean cautiously works his way down the barge to find Juliette. Along the way, he disturbs three sleeping pussycats. They attack him and leave claw marks on his face. When Jean reaches Juliette, she detachedly evaluates him. She takes in his bowed head, bleeding face, and air of remorseful concern. She relents and attacks him with a rain of kisses, fondling and kissing the blood on his cheek. They descend into the cabin below.
This relatively straightforward sequence contains a wealth of meaning. On one level, it quickly establishes the struggles of newlywed couples to find a comfort level. Man approaches wife and is rebuffed. He approaches her later with a new attitude and is accepted. Now consider the symbolism of space. He tries to have sex with her on one end of the boat, "his" end, the realm of man. Juliette rejects that end of the boat and takes a solitary journey to a new place, the "female" end of the barge. Jean stumbles and feels his way to the female side to meet Juliette on her terms. Along the way, he is attacked by a symbol of female sexuality. He emerges on the female side a different man, tamed by the pussycat. Only then do they consummate. Even that deep meaning is not the end of the symbolism. Juliette is only stimulated when Jean is bleeding and cowered. This sadomasochistic element introduces complex shades of meaning to Juliette's character. There is a lot going on, but this sequence only represents about two minutes of real life on the barge.
The entire film is like this. You can enjoy it on the surface level and be rewarded with a moving tale of young lovers discovering the truth of love. You can open yourself to the symbolic meaning of L'Atalante and be rewarded with rich subtext. Furthermore, you can delve deeply into powerful personal and human symbolism, reading a fundamental message into the work. As true art, L'Atalante both invites and sustains complex and varied interpretation.
Like the cinematography, the characters are compelling and masterful but only contribute part of the whole. The story appears to center around the couple. Jean is typically considered the male lead and Juliette the female lead. Critics praise Michel Simon's portrayal of Papa Jules as one of the standout supporting roles in the history of cinema. But I believe Jules is the main character in L'Atalante. He is the first person shown; in classic theatrical parlance, that makes him the central figure of the work. He also undergoes the most conflict. Finally, he takes the pivotal actions in the film. Jules is not a supporting figure, he is a main (perhaps the main) character.
Michel Simon brings Jules to life in an inspired performance. Papa Jules is enigmatic, charming, and indescribably complex. On the surface, he is gruff and dull, a forest of stubble on a bigger chin than Bruce Campbell's. Jules is almost childlike in his simplistic behavior. He frets like a mother hen to make Juliette's arrival aboard L'Atalante perfect. One senses that he does it not for Juliette's sake, but for Jean's. He plays the concertina and your heart leaps with unrestrained levity, yet he sulks and broods with ominous violence. Jules seems to be both subordinate to Jean and a mentor. He is a father figure but needs to be scolded and disciplined like a child. He is lustful; his sensual openness inexplicably seduces women. Yet you sense that his love is reserved for men.
Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté are no slouches either. The two generate believable chemistry and believable conflict. Palo is radiant. You long to hold her. Jean is remarkable as a stereotypically reticent man, but we respect him for the efforts he makes. The pleasure and pain of each character is discernable. You may find yourself nodding in sympathy with all three sides of this human triangle.
The scene in Jules' cabin is one of the greatest scenes I've ever witnessed due to its psychological complexity and seductive undercurrent. Jules snaps on deck, howling about "all that kissing." He lumbers below in a cloud of rage to find Juliette bent over the sewing machine. Jules intends to have it out with Juliette. We fear for her psychological and physical well-being. Juliette is blithely unaware of Jules' hostility and the real danger she is in. Instead of reacting with caution or defensiveness, Juliette regards Jules with unguarded warmth and flirtation. Jules is disarmed in the bright rays of Juliette's feminine warmth. He gruffly informs her that she's messing up the dress, so Juliette asks him to "Be my mannequin." In short order, Jules is standing still while Juliette wraps a skirt around his waist. The request to "be my mannequin" works on both a literal and figurative level. The salty sailor in a skirt is a powerful sexual image.
Jules reasserts himself through a different tactic. He sits down at the machine and competently sews the hem. With that simple gesture, he demonstrates his comfort with the female realm. Juliette becomes immediately fascinated.
Jules takes her into his cabin. The cabin is filled with treasures from around the world: European music boxes, a handmade Japanese fan, an African elephant tusk. Each treasure reveals more about Jules' history and ability. He "got in some trouble" with a lady in Singapore. (Is the downtrodden deck hand his son, perhaps?) He reminisces about a "friend" who we sense meant more to him.
Juliette notices a puppet booth and toys with the puppet man. Jules offers to give her a show. The puppet comes to life in a grotesquely fascinating rictus of movement. The horror is inexplicable, but that shot stuck in my mind like a dark shadow. When the puppet dropped to the stage, I felt palpable relief.
Juliette looks at a bookshelf. Our view is from the other side of the shelf. Concealed behind some books we see a pair of human hands floating in a jar. Her back is turned to Jules and he looms behind her in the darkness. She shifts some books, and we know she is about to uncover the hands. In a rush of dread, Jules' menace and implied violence pour back into our consciousness. What will he do to Juliette? That moment passes, but we are left with a new riddle to ponder. The hands belonged to Jules "friend," and this is all that is left of him.
Before long, Juliette has Jules stripped down to the waist so she can see his tattoos. Jules is seducing her with his charm and history, while Juliette is seducing him with curiosity and a definite flutter of her eyelashes. Jules tickles her by inserting a cigarette into his belly button and undulating his belly. They laugh and sit down on the bed together. What will happen? Jean storms in and the mood shifts radically.
This sequence is rife with meaning and sultry tension. Again, it isn't what is happening so much as what it means and how the characters interact. Jules and Juliette never actually have sexual contact, but the air is heavy with sexual tension. Objects have long taken on significance as powerful symbols in both literature and cinema: Rosebud in Citizen Kane, the paperweight in 1984. In Jules' cabin, every item drips with layers of meaning. It is simply amazing. When Jean comes in and begins smashing Jules' things, the sense of loss is tangible.
I've briefly discussed the sensuality in L'Atalante. The entire film is suffused with erotic nuances. Dita Parlo seduces and is seduced by men, life, the city of Paris, but most of all her true love Jean. When she emerges fresh faced and sleepy from below deck after a night of passion, greeted by a serenade from the crew, it took my breath away. Her casually erect nipples, touchable windblown hair, and carnal delight at nibbling on Jean's ear while whispering erotic nothings is one of the most believable depictions of young lust I've ever seen. Later, the two are separated and have feverish dreams of longing for each other. Juliette languidly fondles her own breasts while Jean sucks on his bicep. Juliette parts her knees and we fade to Jean's head, superimposed over her body. The two writhe in place, psychically connected by lust and longing.
Love and eroticism are certainly not the only themes hidden within this powerful narrative. L'Atalante tempts you with its narcotic scent, encouraging you to discern its meaning. Themes of innocence, strife, corruption, bisexuality, rage, authority, and pride permeate the film.
L'Atalante is one of the early "talkies"; the film is very old. The image has many flaws: nicks, scratches, persistent lines down the center, jitter, and a host of other problems. However, given the age of the print, the transfer is fantastic. Contrast and black levels are amazing. The cinematography is simply unbelievable.
Sonically, the film has similar problems. The mono soundtrack is often muffled, dialogue is harsh. But again, the absolute mastery of the soundtrack erases such concerns. Maurice Jaubert has composed a dreamy melody that shifts with and enhances the moods of the scenes. There wasn't a misstep in the score. Each note seemed to vibrate in perfect synergy with the film.
• sweet story
L'Atalante fires on all cylinders. But the best part is the whole is still greater.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I had an issue with the extras. Two of the extras are comprised of static images. They ran as a slideshow, with no way to pause and absorb each photo or poster. This lack of control was frustrating. The featurette gives great insight into the film, as do the thorough liner notes.
After my unbridled fawning, it would be understandable for you to expect something more dramatic. Remember that Vigo was purposefully obfuscating the sexual and subversive elements of the film to pass the censor board. The insights I gleaned were after careful thought and analysis. On the surface, L'Atalante is a relatively plain story of boy meets girl, loses girl, and so forth. Explaining its powerful mystique is like trying to explain a dream. You have to be more forceful than the dream events require to get across the idea. After all I've said here, my real advice is "just watch it."
There is so much more to say. This film rewards viewers in every way. If you appreciate finer points of cinema, L'Atalante is a whole world of delight awaiting your exploration.
Jean Vigo and all of his cohorts are given the best wishes of this court. It is refreshing to remember that cinema was once about art and humanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• The Making Of L'Atalante Featurette
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