Artist of the floating world: what makes Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante great

The sole full-length feature made by Jean Vigo, L’Atalante was a bridge between the surrealism of 1920s French cinema and the poetic realism of the 1930s. Here’s why it was worthy of inclusion in S&S’s 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll.

Updated: 13 November 2019

By Graham Fuller

Dita Parlo as Juliette and Jean Dasté as Jean in L’Atalante
Sight and Sound

Jean Vigo’s great work about a pair of troubled newly-weds and the crusty old mate with the Hapsburg jaw and unfettered imagination who travels with them aboard the Normandy freight barge L’Atalante was based on a one-page scenario by Jean Guinée.

This was the pen name of Roger de Guichen, who had been intrigued by the sight of a woman helming a barge on the Seine, and had named his fictional vessel after a frigate commanded by one of his ancestors in the Seven Years War. Following the banning of Vigo’s Zéro de conduite in 1933, the director’s supportive producer Jacques-Louis Nounez sent him Guinée’s scenario hoping it would deter him from the kind of radical experimentation that had illuminated Vigo’s scabrous 42-minute satire of boarding-school life.

“What the fuck do you want me to do with this? It’s Sunday-school stuff,” was Vigo’s response when he read the scenario. It was workaday melodrama. Juliette, the young wife, bored with the monotony and domestic drudgery of her life on the barge after the initial erotic charge of her marriage has dwindled, runs away from her conservative husband Jean, the skipper, for an afternoon of window-shopping in Paris, only to find herself stranded when he angrily takes off in the barge. Her handbag is stolen, she’s propositioned, she fears for her survival. The husband languishes, despite the kindly attempts of the mate, le père Jules, to rouse him. In Guinée’s scenario, Juliette is found by the old salt in a church. Penitent, she returns to Jean, confirming she is faithful. But Guinée pessimistically concluded in his synopsis, “Happiness has fled the vessel.”

Despite his reservations, Vigo sensed he could tell the story imaginatively. Nounez struck a deal whereby he would cover the running costs while Gaumont provided studio space, cameras and distribution. Vigo and his co-writer Albert Riéra would eliminate Guinée’s moralising, take advantage of the on-shore plight of Juliette (Dita Parlo) to show the inroads of the Depression and expose the spite of the petit bourgeois mob and the brutality of the police – and use music and magic to bring her home to Jean (Jean Dasté). The genie-like le père Jules (Michel Simon), who discovers her working in a palais de chansons instead of telling her rosary in a church, carries her out on his shoulder, as if she were one of the many cats that cling to him on the barge.

In October 1933, just before shooting, Vigo told a Belgian journalist that he was using Guinée’s scenario “merely as a loose frame allowing me to work with images of the waterways, the environment of the canal-workers, and the actors”. He was as good as his word. The connecting thread of L’Atalante is the realist footage depicting the harsh, unremitting lives of the crew and the waterfront folk as the barge heads to Paris and, minus Juliette, on to Le Havre. Contrasting with the voyage sequences, however, are exquisitely sensual flights into surrealism. Jean, believing an old wives’ tale told him by Juliette in the first days of their marriage, dives into the icy river to seek a glimpse of her underwater, whereupon she is magically superimposed over him in her wedding dress as he swims. (Vigo drew on his 1931 short about a swimming champion, Taris ou la Natation.) Then Jean and Juliette, though miles apart, ‘make love’ by dreaming erotically of each other in parallel scenes, their bodies impressionistically speckled in unifying dots of shadow.

L'Atalante (1934)

Only a few minutes have elapsed in L’Atalante when Vigo starts to infuse it with melancholy lyricism – and dab it with strangeness. The film begins with the funereal wedding procession at a timber village on the river, Juliette’s mealy-mouthed relatives following bride and groom to the barge, on which he is to whisk her way from her provincial life. The gloomy sequence is alleviated only by the comic antics of le père Jules and the cabin boy (Louis Lefèbvre), who nearly botch their welcome to Juliette; the bouquet they planned to give her having been knocked in the river, the boy materialises on the bank shrouded in old man’s beard (a herb associated with virgins and the devil).

One of the wedding party observes that Juliette is “tired of village life”, but Vigo shows her standing morosely on the shore, looking as if she regrets her decision. Once on board, swung there on the boom like a sack of potatoes, she is approached at the prow by Jean – the iconic shot echoed in Titanic – and melts on to the deck in his embrace, only to be disturbed by one of the cats, which ominously dislodges her bridal wreath and veil.

Vigo follows this with a sublime medium shot, scored to a Maurice Jaubert tune that poignantly signals Juliette’s departure from her sheltered girlhood: annoyed with cats and husband, she tentatively walks the length of the barge, her satin wedding dress gleaming ghostly white against the fading day, the camera gently travelling with her as another boat passes in the channel beyond. The shot picks up le père Jules at the wheel, but there’s an unexpected cut to an eerily lit old woman who, standing on the riverbank with a toddler, crosses herself as she watches the bride, as if acknowledging what shame the night will bring. (In fact, when Juliette emerges from the hatch into sunlight the next morning, she’s radiantly happy.)

Perhaps irritated by Juliette’s show of independence, Jean hurries to catch up with her, but slips and falls on the curved cargo cover – a forecast of the mistakes he will make as a possessive husband. Two of the cats attack him, one leaving an ugly scratch on his left cheek. The sight of the blood mollifies and arouses Juliette, so she caresses Jean’s face and they head to their cabin to make love for the first time. The cats were a personal touch – Vigo’s memory of the pets beloved by his anarchist father, Miguel Almereyda, who died in prison in 1917 – probably murdered – when his son was 12. The two cats that attack Jean were tossed at him by Vigo and a fellow crew member. “More idiocy in the name of cinema,” Simon wryly remarked in 1964, 30 years after the making of L’Atalante.

Michel Simon as père Jules

A greater idiocy than throwing cats or cutting one’s hand for a movie, some might conclude, was the tubercular Vigo’s killing himself in the name of cinema by filming L’Atalante in often freezing conditions. Just 29, he died from rheumatic septicaemia on 5 October 1934, a few days after the movie – butchered by Gaumont and renamed Le Chaland qui passe (“The Passing Barge”) after the chanteuse Lys Gauty’s cloying hit song, which the studio crudely inserted – had been pulled from Paris’s Colisée cinema following an unsuccessful two-week run. Vigo was always bound for an early grave – like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry and Alain-Fournier – and, though he considered himself indestructible according to one friend, dying with his boots on at the peak of his powers wasn’t the worst thing he could have done. Within 20 years, L’Atalante, his only full-length feature, A propos de Nice (1930), his sardonic anti-bourgeois travelogue pastiche, and Zéro de conduite had been acclaimed as visionary films. (Taris was his only other work.) Vigo thus emerged as cinema’s unassailable auteur maudit, its greatest loss.

“All filmmakers are searching for Cinema and discover it partially,” Henri Langlois wrote in 1956. “Vigo is Cinema incarnate in one man.” Nouvelle vague directors – especially Truffaut and Godard – honoured Vigo in their own work, as have Lindsay Anderson, Bertolucci, Oliveira, Carax and Kusturica. L’Atalante was listed tenth in Sight & Sound’s 1962 Greatest Films poll; in 1992, directors voted it fifth and critics sixth. Having ascended, it was absent from the 2002 poll. And in 2012…?

Enduring power

Michel Simon’s quote about “idiocy” comes from an interview the veteran gave Jacques Rozier for the Cinéastes de notre temps television documentary that appears on Criterion’s spiffy The Complete Jean Vigo, just released in America on DVD and (for the first time) Blu-ray; it also appeared on Artificial Eye’s UK edition in 2004 and L’intégrale Jean Vigo in 2001. (Dasté, Parlo, Gilles Margaritis – who played L’Atalante’s singing pedlar – and other ‘Vigo gang’ members were also interviewed for Rozier’s priceless film.) The fifth and definitive re-edit of L’Atalante – the 2001 restoration by the film historian Bernard Eisenschitz and Luce Vigo, the director’s daughter – is now back in British cinemas seven years after it was released here to commemorate the centenary of Vigo’s birth. And we haven’t seen the last of it.

The film’s enduring power has little to do with its commonplace story. Fêted by cineastes after World War II because of its proto-modernist style, L’Atalante is one of those rare films that transcends its time and place. The naturalistic performances are partially responsible for this: Vigo, by all accounts, was an innately sympathetic judge of actors who knew, for example, that he could get the best out of the difficult, depressive Simon by leaving him alone. The great actor, who had played the anarchic, bourgeois-rattling tramp in Jean Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux two years before, limp-lurches around, mumbles, grumbles, sulks, sings, shimmies, does an impromptu Cossack dance and sticks a lit cigarette into his navel after he takes off his top to show Juliette his tattoos – but there is not a whisper of rhetoric in his miraculous turn; he is as naturalistic as Dasté and Parlo. All the performances are devoid of 1930s-style theatricality, except in the case of Margaritis’s handsome, vaudevillian, nonsense-spewing huckster, who introduces a knowingly surrealistic carnival spirit; greeting Juliette and Jean at the dancehall where they spend their only night together ashore, he appears to break the fourth wall (as do Parlo and Dasté in the ‘love-making’ sequence). Replacing a smitten sailor in Guinée’s scenario, his role is to tempt Juliette to Paris, city of sin – though what she finds when she gets there is not release and excitement, but danger and bourgeois materialism.

Boris Kaufman and Jean Vigo (in background)

Blending documentary realism and surrealism, Vigo achieved an effortless-seeming poetry through Boris Kaufman’s omniscient angled camera placement and gentle dollying and travelling shots, Louis Chavance’s rhythmic editing – which he accomplished alone when Vigo fell ill – and Jaubert’s lambent (sometimes languidly brassy) musical themes. The poetry also flows from visual rhymes and the use of natural or artificially enhanced atmospheric effects. In the first long shot of the barge, a cloud of steam from an unseen locomotive rises up in the foreground, echoing the station sequence that begins Zéro de conduite, and suffusing the scene in mystery. In one of the moodiest sequences, Juliette, forlornly contemplating the staleness of her new existence, gets lost on deck in the fog that shrouds the barge; one wonders if Vigo had seen F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), an obvious analogue to L’Atalante with its warnings about urban corruption, or Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928).

Juliette’s dissatisfaction with her life grows when Jean – fearing urban enticements – shuts off a radio announcer describing the latest Paris fashions. When the barge arrives in the city, she steals into le père Jules’s cabin, which he has crammed with the peculiar artefacts he has collected roving the world for over 40 years. They include a marionette (a Surrealist signifier) of a wild-looking orchestra conductor, a fan, a phallic tusk, a gramophone that won’t play, a photo of le père Jules with two good-time girls, one of a smiling naked woman, and another of a brawny sailor baring his chest – a dead friend whose pickled hands le père Jules lovingly preserves in a jar. Echoing the wonder of a moviegoer, the rapt Juliette, luminous in close-up, expresses childlike joy, fascination and shock as she explores with its owner this ramshackle Kunstkammer.

In his 1928 novel Nadja, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, records his trips to flea markets “on the lookout for these objects one cannot find anywhere else, outmoded, fragmented, unusable, almost incomprehensible, ultimately perverse in the way I appreciate it or like it”. Similarly, le père Jules’s objects have a surreally poetic resonance that mirror his unconscious (and polymorphous perversity) and carry Juliette into hers. “Surrealism,” Breton wrote, aligning it with psychoanalysis, “aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of foreign territory.”

We remember the cat scratch on Jean’s cheek during this sequence, when le père Jules calmly cuts his hand with a navaja in an act of bravado and Juliette sticks out her tongue spontaneously, as if to lap up the blood. One of Vigo’s favourite films was Un chien andalou (1928), and it’s possible he was paying a gentle homage to the sadistic eye-slitting scene in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist short; certainly, he recognised the taboo appeal of Simon’s Beast for Parlo’s Beauty, as if he were her concupiscent surrogate father. Both love Jean, but Vigo and cinematographer Kaufman (allegedly the brother of Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov) filmed the girl – hungry for sensual experience – and the old sailor – cured in it – so close together one can sense the coming together of their force fields. Unused to feminine attention after a lifetime of apparent ambisexual voluptuousness, le père Jules is moved by the tactile Juliette’s presence, especially when she tells him his hair is pretty and combs it; she aspires unconsciously to what he represents – exotic pleasures, the release of the id, freedom beyond what she thinks even Paris, her mecca, can offer her.

L'Atalante (1934)

Vigo may have originally intended a hint of predatory menace in le père Jules’s excitation, however. When Jean bursts in and starts to smash Jules’s crockery in a jealous, puritanical fit (unlike his wife and his mate, he is a repressed social conformist), Juliette reclines laughing on Jules’s bunk and there’s a cut to the old man pulling away from her. In one of the unused rushes, as demonstrated by Eisenschitz in the documentary Les Voyages de “L’Atalante”, Jules crawls above her as she squirms seductively on the bed, but a cat jumps in too early. Had the shot come off and been used, it might have cost Juliette and Jules’s relationship its vital innocence. As Marina Warner has suggested in her BFI monograph on the film, “The theme of innocence relates L’Atalante closely to Zéro de conduite… Both make passionate statements about personal and emotional freedom and the expression of individual preferences and desires with an anarchic, antinomian joie de vivre which can also be found in some of the best self-declared Surrealist image-making.”

A free association

“It was in the black mirror of anarchism that Surrealism first recognised itself, well before defining itself, when it was still only a free association among individuals rejecting the social and moral constraints of their day, spontaneously and in their entirety,” Breton wrote in 1952. Vigo, given his history and his long effort to rehabilitate the memory of his father, was constitutionally committed to an anarchic-Surrealist cinema outraged by the plight of the poor – in L’Atalante, the unemployed outside the factory where Juliette tries to get work; the epileptic thief maltreated by the mob and the police; le père Jules and the other bargees bullied by the shipping boss – and in simultaneously documenting the liberation of the unconscious. His desire, he stated when presenting a screening of A propos de Nice in Paris in June 1930, was “to reveal the hidden reasons behind a gesture, to extract from the most mundane person caught off guard a hidden beauty or a caricature… and do this with such strength that from then onwards the world which before we had lived beside in a state of indifference offers itself to us in spite of itself, beyond its appearance.”

In L’Atalante, the hidden beauty of Juliette and le père Jules is revealed through their awkward bonding, first in her cabin when she asks him to model a dress she is mending, then when they explore his ‘cabinet of curiosities’. The immature Jean, having learned that jailing Juliette on the boat won’t work, becomes beautiful too, through his gradual awakening to the power of imagination, in his diving into the Seine and his erotic dream of Juliette. When the barge docks in Le Havre, he walks from the harbour to the beach and sets off running across the vast expanse of sand to gaze at the horizon, as if he would seek her at the ends of the earth – the dreamlike composition recalling some of Dalí’s contemporaneous beach paintings.

Jean Vigo and Dita Parlo filming L’Atalante

Crucially, L’Atalante built a bridge between the 1920s Surrealist cinema of Man Ray, Germaine Dulac, Buñuel, Dalí and René Clair (who extended it in his stylised early sound films), and the poetic-realist cinema of the mid and late 1930s. Films like Jacques Feyder’s Le Grand Jeu (1933), Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Quai des brumes (1938), Hôtel du nord (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939), and Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (1939) generally shared with L’Atalante a lyrical realism based on location shooting and blended with stylisation (or camera tricks), naturalistic acting and working-class or luckless heroes trapped by fate.

Vigo was kinder and more forgiving than the Surrealists, however, and less morbid than the poetic realists. Dudley Andrew contends in Mists of Regret (1995) that “the poetic realists for the most part were disappointed children of the bourgeoisie; their weak pessimism shows itself in the terminal fatigue that overcomes the hero of Le Jour se lève, a fatigue that shows up in the very title of Duvivier’s La Fin du jour (1939). Vigo’s people are never tired. Juliette, the purest of these, explores Paris with reckless curiosity… Vigo’s tactile sensibility comes through in characters who subordinate order to adventure. The poetic realists scarcely relished adventure at all.”

Included in the rushes Eisenschitz unveils in Les Voyages de “L’Atalante” (which is included as a supplement in all the Complete Vigo DVD sets), there are five hazy, haunting shots of Vigo taken between set-ups on location. He wears an overcoat and sometimes a large shapeless beret. In one shot, he looks pensively at the camera as he stands on the barge between the clapperboy and Parlo in the wedding dress. It compounds the young director’s legend that he is beautiful, and that in the last shot he dissolves into a wall as he talks to the actress. He only had weeks to live, but the poetry of L’Atalante and the film’s belief in the imagination of ‘mundane’ people linger on.

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Originally published: 7 June 2012

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