A man and a woman are married in a small town. The wedding procession follows them to a canal barge, of which he is the master. His crew, an old salt and a young boy, await them there. The couple adjust to married life uneasily: she doesn’t feel quite at home on the barge; he is jealous of anyone she talks to and anything she does that doesn’t involve him. There are a few terrible scenes. Then they are separated—partly by accident and partly by design. They both spend a difficult interval, and then they are reunited.
That is all that really happens in L’Atalante (1934), and yet the movie can feel as though it contains the whole world. The last film completed by Jean Vigo before his death from tuberculosis at twenty-nine—he died soon after the movie ended its first, commercially bleak run—L’Atalante took decades to receive its due. Vigo had made only one other feature, Zéro de conduite (1933), which was banned until 1945 for outrages to the educational system. As a consequence, his producer, the independent Jacques-Louis Nounez, while agreeing to finance another picture, insisted on selecting the property himself. He chose a banal story by one Jean Guinée that concerned the romance and hardship of the lives of barge dwellers. It was a topic in vogue just then, inspiring a number of popular songs, including Damia’s great “Chanson de halage” and Lys Gauty’s “Le chaland qui passe”—the latter of which the distributors insisted on wedging into Vigo’s picture, which they retitled after the song, although neither of those intrusions particularly enhanced its prospects.
Those songs came out of the réaliste surge that dominated French popular music in the 1930s—tough, unsparing narratives of crime, prostitution, life on the street and the waterfront. The decade, scarred at birth by the worldwide crash, was a hard time filled with labor strife, unemployment, political clashes, and fear of what was going on in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Popular culture in general tended toward the acerbic and fatalistic when it was not numbly saccharine. Movies, too, could be escapist and bland, but those that were not were stunning, an extraordinary run of pictures often retroactively herded under the banner of “poetic realism,” from René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) to Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939). Those movies combined a romantic outlook and a propensity for dreamy musing with an unblinking view of the torn social fabric. They reflected the twinned influences of surrealism and the Soviet modernist filmmakers in their coupling of transcendence and grit—their heady, plunging views and their insistent inclusiveness. They were made by people who truly inhabited their time, who could not separate public from private or subjective from objective.
L’Atalante stands right in the middle of this run. Its blending of the real and the fantastic is so silken it can almost pass unnoticed, which is what led early viewers to undervalue it. James Agee, who was agog at the daring of Zéro de conduite when both movies were released in the United States in 1947, could term L’Atalante merely “spasmodically great poetry applied to pretty good prose,” which in contrast to the freedom of the earlier picture “suggests the strugglings of a maniac in a straitjacket.” Viewers looking for shock could easily miss the radical restraint of L’Atalante, which in any other filmmaker’s oeuvre could have come a decade after Zéro de conduite rather than a year. When, for example, the couple are apart and the image cuts between them lying in their separate beds, the erotic charge is potent if ghostly—as if the film were a phenakistoscope, the early optical device that relies on persistence of vision to overlay two images, the illusion that they are in the same bed is both there and not. The outrageously lyrical sight of the bride swinging on the barge’s boom in her nuptial gown is handled with such matter-of-fact brevity that it almost slips by as another item in the boarding process. Meanwhile, all of Vigo’s anarchist dynamite is off-loaded onto Père Jules, the old mate who is at once the movie’s conscience and its comic relief.
Michel Simon, who plays Père Jules, had two years earlier appeared as the title character in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and his role here echoes that of the nature-boy tramp there, just more articulate and with a sailor’s life of place-names. He has experienced every sort of corruption of the flesh in his travels and emerged from it all wise, even parental, but lawless as an infant. Simon was only thirty-nine when L’Atalante was made, but he’d been playing much older men since at least Renoir’s La chienne (1931). With Simon, you begin to think that only his good nature and his political convictions prevented him from walking off with every picture he appeared in; while the other actors act, here as everywhere else, Simon gives the impression that he alone is free to play. The other principals in L’Atalante are no slouches, though. Dita Parlo, as Juliette, the bride, was making her first movie in France after six years of popular success in her native Germany. Jean Dasté, as Jean, the barge master, who played Huguet the master in Zéro de conduite, had made only two movies before, that one and Boudu Saved from Drowning, but he was to go on to a long and distinguished career, including appearances in multiple films by Renoir, Resnais, and Truffaut. Both actors here are exquisitely tuned to the correct degree of intensity.
The cameraman was Boris Kaufman, Dziga Vertov’s brother, who shot all of Vigo’s pictures (save the short Taris), and you can see the Russian avant-garde eye of the time in every outdoor shot, constantly finding angles that throw the viewer into a new rapport with the setting but without a trace of gimmickry. The documentary aspect of the shooting isn’t overstated, but the picture clearly shows its kinship with movies by Joris Ivens and others covering labor and landscape between the wars. The surrealist aesthetic is pervasive—Père Jules’s curio collection could have been borrowed in toto from André Breton’s apartment—and its most overt manifestation, the underwater photography inspired by Vigo’s experience on Taris (1931, in which the French swimming champion of the title looks like the subject of a painting by Valentine Hugo, floating among the stars), is a beautifully realized conceit, at once mystically dreamlike and fabulously glamorous. But Vigo isn’t Man Ray—he pulls away from the lip of Hollywood to throw you back into the real world of weather and labor and money worries. Throughout, the interplay between the characters is evenhanded; nothing is ever dramatized for the sake of drama. The realistic tone of the squabbling seems almost Russian, too, reminiscent of Soviet character pictures like Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927).
Because of censorship, marketing and distribution problems, Vigo’s early death, and other factors, his movies did not get the recognition they deserved until they were rereleased after the war, which was also when they were widely shown abroad. Their reputation was made in France by the young film fanatics of the ciné-clubs, a disproportionate number of whom would go on to become important critics and, eventually, filmmakers—virtually all of the New Wave directors traveled this route, and many of them paid tributes direct and metaphorical to Vigo in their pictures (most obviously, Truffaut in The 400 Blows). Another major heir of L’Atalante is the photography of Robert Doisneau, especially his first book, La banlieue de Paris (1949, with text by Blaise Cendrars). Part of the reason Doisneau’s pictures can feel as though they were taken just outside the frame of this movie is simply geographical. His territory included the location where much of L’Atalante was shot, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a country village in the 1930s but after the war absorbed into the suburban fringe of Paris, then half-built and raw. The wedding procession at the start of the film winds through a tile-roofed village that—it or its siblings—remains at the center of Doisneau’s world. But then you see in his pictures that the mix of oneiric and workaday that rules the movie was not simply an artist’s whim. Doisneau’s own young marrieds, living it up at the shooting gallery in their wedding finery or having their first drink at the local alongside grime-encrusted laborers, aren’t making a point—they are simply living their lives, snatching pleasure and fully inhabiting it within the lath-and-stucco frame of the daily. Along with the protagonists of L’Atalante, they are part of the last generation in the West to experience life directly and not as consumers.
L’Atalante does contain the world—all of life in miniature: work and love and play, dream and lust and adventure, rapture and heartbreak and reconciliation, and birth and death by implication. You could think of it as made by a filmmaker who knew he was about to die and intended it as a last will and testament, stuffed to the corners with his love for the world. Then again, he left no fewer than twenty-six uncompleted film projects, seven of them his own scripts (as well as unproduced screenplays by Cendrars, Jules Supervielle, Jean Painlevé, and Henri-Pierre Roché, among others), as if he were intending to live to be ninety. Either way, L’Atalante combines the headiness of an ascent with the accrued wisdom of a terminal statement, a conjunction seldom found in movies, or anywhere.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life, Kill All Your Darlings, and Folk Photography. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.