In “Independent Study in World Cinema,” a self-educated film nerd attempts to fill in some fairly serious gaps in his self-education. In this (long-belated) ninth entry in the series, we celebrate the tragically short career of director Jean Vigo with a look at his only feature-length film, L'Atalante.
So far—in our arbitrary and sporadic journey through film history—we've seen early examples of many popular movie genres, including horror, sci-fi, war, crime, and documentary, among others. What we have not seen yet is a true example of cinema's most ubiquitous and enduring genre: the love story.
(Yes, Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis all had romantic subplots, but they were of the most pallid and perfunctory kind. And I'd argue Un Chien Andalou is a film about relationships, but it would be a serious stretch to call it a "love story.")
Jean Vigo's L'Atalante is our first real entry in the genre, and it's a good one. On the surface, it's a perfect example of the classic romantic story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But Vigo—while working within that standard formula—demonstrates that he knows far more about love than such a simplistic structure can contain. Director Francois Truffaut, who became a Vigo enthusiast as a teen-ager in the late 1940s, called it one of those films "whose feet smell," and he meant it as the highest of compliments. For L'Atalante is no idealized, swooning romance: it's a film about the stink of love, the squalor of love, the anger and boredom and perverse complexity of love. Nothing is simple—let alone perfect—in Vigo's vision of love, and the film is all the more intriguing, erotic, and romantic for its messiness.
(On a personal note, I should mention that—through a total accident of timing—I was on my own honeymoon in Paris last year when I first watched this tale of a couple's honeymoon on the Seine. Such a happy confluence of events isn't necessary to enjoy L'Atalante, of course, but I can't say it hurt my enjoyment much. Feel free to hit the "Donate" button, and support my modest new goal of seeing every great film in an appropriate international setting.)
From my college days, I remember a cantankerous old poetry professor getting surprisingly and touchingly emotional when he spoke of the early death of John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. "If I could give 20 more years of life to any writer in history," the professor said, "it would be Keats."
I thought of that professor's words—and his wistful longing for poems unwritten—as I learned about the life and work of Jean Vigo. Vigo left behind just three short films and one feature when he died of tuberculosis—broke and uncelebrated—at the age of 29. His entire catalog amounts to less than three hours of film, and yet this tragically compact oeuvre inspired generations of filmmakers that followed him, and earned Vigo a place among cinema's all-time giants. One can't help but want to go back and magically gift Vigo at least 20 more years of productive life.
Born in 1905, in a one-room Paris attic full of cats, Jean Vigo had a somewhat unusual upbringing. His father, Eugéne Vigo, was a journalist and left-wing anarchist who assumed the nom de guerre Miguel Almereyda. (The last name is a deliberate anagram for the French phrase "This is shit.") Almereyda was in and out of jail throughout Jean's childhood, and died in prison—almost certainly murdered—when Jean was only 12 years old. Jean—already suffering from the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life—was shuffled between relatives and boarding schools, often living under an assumed name himself due to his father's notorious reputation. In 1922, at the age of 17, he rejoined his mother in Paris, and soon began attending the Sorbonne.
After college, Vigo worked briefly as a camera assistant for the Franco Film studio, and in 1930 shot his first short film, the silent documentary A Propos de Nice, with Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Kaufman—who would later go on to lens Hollywood classics like 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront—was the brother of Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman, whose Man with a Movie Camera had been released the previous year. Like Man with a Movie Camera, A Propos de Nice appears, on the surface, to be a "city symphony," a celebration of Nice during carnival. But Almereyda's anarchist influence is evident throughout A Propos de Nice: there is a satirical, even condemnatory air to the film, as Vigo continually shifts between rich party revelers and the poor workers, prostitutes, and homeless people living at the edges of the party. Far from a travelogue, it's more of a wryly bemused study of a perverse civilization in decay.
Vigo's next film, Taris (1931), was a short, 9-minute documentary on a celebrated French swimmer. The kind of focus segment you might see on a sports show, it's nonetheless remarkable for Vigo's experimentation with cinematic technique. (This included learning to film underwater: a skill that would serve him well on L'Atalante.)
However, it is with his third film, Zero de Conduite (1933), that we see Vigo truly coming into his artistic and anarchic own. Drawing on his own childhood experience, Vigo creates a whimsical, exuberant tale of adolescent rebellion at a dreary boarding school. Awkwardly episodic, structurally messy, and narratively a little incoherent, the 42-minute Zero de Conduit is also full of gorgeous imagery, rife with political and sexual subtext, and teeming with irrepressible life and imagination. It's earthy humor, surrealistic sensibility, and subversive spirit were ill-received, however: the audience at the premiere took angrily against it, and the film was quickly banned by French authorities and remained largely unseen until well after the Second World War.
This made for a financial and public relations disaster for Vigo, producer Jacques-Louis Nounez, and the studio, Gaumont. Nounez still believed in the talent of his young director, but wanted something more commercial than the sorts of films Vigo was inclined to write—or even select—himself. (After Zero de Conduit's failure, Vigo had proposed making a film about the trial of the anarchist Eugène Dieudonné, one of his father's associates. But the controversy surrounding Zero de Conduit made that impossible.) According to Vigo biographer P. E. Salles Gomes, "Nounez felt that what Vigo's imagination—a not very reasonable one according to him—needed was the discipline of an already existing script, and he personally started searching for one."1
The unproduced screenplay Nounez found for Vigo was L'Atalante, a romance set on a river barge by a writer named Jean Guinée. Guinée's original scenario—of a bride who runs away from her new husband, learns her lesson on the hard streets of Paris, and finally returns home to him in shame—was simple, conventional, and moralistic. It was an odd choice to bring to the subversive, avant-garde young director. "What the fuck do you want me to do with this?" Vigo said. "It's Sunday school shit."2
But at this point Vigo had little choice: it was either work within the parameters the studio gave him, or else possibly never work again. He accepted the commission, and accepted the studio's choices for the two most important roles: German actress Dita Parlo for Juliette, the bride, and established stage and screen star Michel Simon as Pére Jules, the old sailor who—in Guinée's original scenario—was a wise and sage presence on the barge. Vigo rounded out the cast with members of his usual bande a Vigo, including Zero de Conduit actors Jean Dasté as Jean, the groom, and Louis Lefebvre as the cabin boy. He set about reworking the scenario with his friend and co-writer Albert Riéra, who helped him realize how they could do something interesting with it. ("I agree with you, it's a very banal story," Riéra said. "But it all depends how you tell it."3)
Filming took eleven weeks during the winter of 1933–1934, and—not to put too fine a point on it—it doomed Jean Vigo. That winter was a particularly harsh one in France, and shooting on the icy canals around Paris took its toll. "I am killing myself with L'Atalante," he said, and he was right. By the end of filming, Vigo was directing from a stretcher, and he was so sick he was unable to oversee the final shot of the film. But Vigo was clearly a filmmaker who inspired dedication: the entire crew rallied around their ailing director to complete the movie. (Kaufman, recalling those days, described "small acts of bravery without being conscious, Dita Parlo braving barefoot the icy deck of the barge, Jean Dasté jumping into the canal full of ice at the first suggestion from Vigo, creating the moral climate of the film."4)
The original edit of L'Atalante—completed by film editor Louis Chavance, overseen by the bedridden Vigo—was previewed in April 1934. Studio executives, theater owners, and distributors mostly hated it, and early reviews were mixed at best. Jean Pascal of the Agence d'Information Cinematographiques called it "confused, incoherent, willfully absurd, long, dull, and commercially worthless," yet also added that it had "undeniable qualities: some beautiful, very human scenes here and there drowned in a mishmash of absurdities and redundancies."5
Gaumont apparently had another financial disaster from Jean Vigo on their hands, and set about trying to salvage a few dollars. A song by Lys Gauty called "Le Chaland qui passe" ("The Passing Bridge") was popular in France at the time, and so the studio haphazardly incorporated it into a severely butchered version of the film that was released under the title Le Chaland qui Passe. This version of the film—bearing little resemblance to Vigo's vision—was a commercial failure, and ran in theaters only a couple of weeks. Shortly after it closed, on October 5, 1934, Jean Vigo died, no doubt believing that his film—and his career—had utterly failed.
But Vigo's work—including a restored cut of L'Atalante and the re-released Zero de Conduite—began to gain in reputation among cinephiles in the 1940s, and Vigo would come to be celebrated as the father of the French New Wave. (A national award for young film directors—the Prix Jean Vigo—was established in his name in 1951. Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais—both of whom we will visit later in the syllabus—were among its early recipients.) By the time of the 1962 edition of Sight and Sound's decennial list of the greatest films ever made, L'Atalante had cracked the top 10. In the 1980s, Gaumont—the same studio that had butchered L'Atalante in the first place—undertook a restoration of Vigo's catalogue, and a version close to Vigo's original cut was released on VHS in 1990, and restored for DVD in 2001. Criterion released a new restoration in 2011 (which is the one I watched). In the most recent Sight and Sound poll, from 2012, L'Atalante came in at #12, just behind Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.
In his excellent essay "Jean Vigo: Artist of the Floating World," critic Graham Fuller says "L’Atalante built a bridge between the 1920s Surrealist cinema…and the poetic-realist cinema of the mid and late 1930s." For me, that's a good starting place for our discussion, because I find L'Atalante to be an incredibly layered, almost subliminally subversive piece of work. Its narrative is deceptively straightforward, its basic beats following Guinée's simplistic morality play closely. But Vigo draws rich, emotional power from deep wells of psychology and mythology, conjuring by evocation a film that is far more interesting, complex, and progressive than it first appears.
But don't take my word for it: let's look at the film. (If you haven't seen L'Atalante, there are various versions currently on YouTube—here, for example—but I recommend renting the Criterion restoration on Amazon.)
The very first shot of L'Atalante explains its title, as we fade in on the name of the barge that will be the setting for most of the story. Vigo inherited this title from Guinée's scenario—according to Fuller, Guinée called the barge after a frigate one of his ancestors commanded in the Seven Years War—and so it is tempting to attach no greater significance to the film's name. But there are several elements throughout L'Atalante that suggest Vigo—if not Guinée—was very familiar with the Greek myth of Atalanta, so let's begin with a quick recap.
Like many Greek myths, Atalanta's biography is a little convoluted, no doubt an amalgamation of several different stories. In brief, however, she was an Arcadian maiden, whose father had really wanted a son: in his disappointment, he abandoned his daughter in the wilds, where she was suckled by a she-bear and raised by hunters. As if to prove her father wrong, she grew up to be as fierce an athlete and warrior as any man. (The name means "equal in weight.") She took part in the voyage of the Argonaut, and bested the hero Peleus in a wrestling match. She was the only woman to join the men for the hunt for the monstrous Calydonian Boar, and in fact was the first warrior to draw blood from the beast. (After the boar had been killed, another hunter, who was besotted with her, granted Atalanta the beast's tusked head and pelt as a trophy, claiming she had dealt it a mortal wound.) Another tradition holds that there is a fountain of fresh water in Cyphanta where Atalanta—thirsty from hunting—struck a rock with her spear and brought the water forth. Later, Atalanta—who had sworn to defend her virginity—agreed to marry only on the condition that any would be suitors must try to defeat her in a footrace, with their lives forfeit if they should fail. Many potential husbands fell in the attempt, until Hippomenes slowed her down with some golden apples he'd gotten from Aphrodite. The couple married, and were later turned into lions after they offended one of the gods—versions vary on which—by having an ill-advised tryst in a temple.
None of this is necessary for appreciating L'Atalante, of course, but there are enough elements of the myth playfully referenced in the film that I doubt the associations are coincidental. In terms of the heroine of L'Atalante, I think the important things are the idea of a woman existing in equality with men, and the implied conflict between independence and marriage. Ovid tells us how Atalanta was both determined to stay free and destined to be caught. "She asked some god about husbands. 'A husband,' he answered, 'is not for you, Atalanta: flee from a husband! But you will not flee—and, losing yourself, will live on!"6 He also tells us, however, that Atalanta was not an entirely reluctant bride, provided Hippomenes could prove himself worthy of her. (She is intrigued by Hippomenes when he challenges her: "And as he spoke, Atalanta's countenance softened: she wondered whether she wished to win or to be won."7)
Interestingly, Vigo's film begins where most love stories end, with a wedding. (It's a curious place to begin a retelling of the myth, for it seems the maiden has already been caught.) In the opening scenes we hear church bells, and follow the wedding processional of Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) through the streets of a small French village. We know nothing—and will learn little more—about their courtship. (Vigo is not interested in that first infatuation of love, but in what comes after.) We do, however, learn a little about Juliette from a chorus of villagers in the wedding party. "Couldn't she marry a local boy?" one says. "She always had to be different," someone else says. She is, we overhear, "tired of village life." And so it is quickly established that this marriage—for the bride, at least—is about adventure, escape: Juliette is no provincial maid, but a non-conformist who longs to live a larger life and see more of the world.
And yet the procession has a strangely funereal air. It is a long, somewhat solemn walk—a real journey, through the town and across hills and fields—and the bride looks at least uncertain, if not downright regretful.
The fun in this opening sequence is provide by neither the bride nor the groom, but by Pére Jules (Michael Simon): he, in fact, is the first character we see in the film, rushing ahead of the wedding party with the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) to prepare for Juliette's arrival on L'Atalante. His intentions are good—he and the cabin boy want to welcome the bride with flowers—but the slapstick that ensues reveal Jules to be a disheveled, volatile, slightly drunken beast of a man, a figure of chaos and squalor apart from—and contrasting with—the rest of the wedding party. Juliette, marching solemnly beside her new husband, is steadily moving away from the provinciality of the village folk and towards the worldly, messy uncertainty represented by Pére Jules.
While the stern-faced townsfolk look on, it is Jules—not Juliette's husband—who symbolically carries her over the proverbial threshold, placing her on a boom and swinging her onto the barge. It's an early hint that Juliette's relationship with Pére Jules will be at least as important as her relationship with her husband. (That Pére Jules role will be slightly paternal is suggested by his name, of course, but also by a brief scene in which he comforts—and embraces—Juliette's distraught mother: standing on the bank, they seem for a moment like an old married couple watching their daughter leave home.)
As night falls, the barge departs, and we get the first of many iconic shots in L'Atalante: Juliette stands alone at the bow of the ship, gazing downriver at her future, as Jean comes up behind her. (In the spirit of the myth, Jean will spend much of the film trying to catch up to Juliette.)
He embraces her, but she has not yet relinquished the ambiguity we saw on her face earlier: she lets him draw her down to the deck of the boat, but she doesn't look happy about it as he begins kissing and groping her. Pére Jules, we've already learned, is a collector of stray cats, and now several of the animals pounce on the wrestling couple. Juliette gets up—seemingly in disgust—and walks away down the prow of the barge, in one long, stunning tracking shot. We didn't get to see her wedding, but we do get this simulacrum of a bridal march. (Interestingly, she is walking away from Jean, and towards Pére Jules, who is steering the ship from the stern.)
I want to dwell on this segment for a moment, because I think there are a lot of interesting things happening here. The scene plays out with no dialogue, as though in a silent film, and we are left to interpret Juliette's odd reactions ourselves. At this point in the film, we might be tempted to think that Juliette is a miserable bride, almost as if she has been sold against her will to Jean. But that doesn't track with what we heard about her earlier, and it doesn't gel with what we see of her later. So why does she reject Jean when he embraces her? Is it regret at leaving home? (But she is not wistfully looking backwards at her home, but looking forward, at the wider world we already know she has longed for.) Is it wedding-night nerves? (Before she begins her march, she reaffixes her bridal veil and clutches her bouquet, as if she does not want to stop being a bride in order to become a wife.) One other possibility—which does fit with what we know and learn of her—is that she resents his intrusion on her as she stands gazing downriver: in embracing her, Jean—not for the last time in the film—comes between her and the adventure for which she longs.
But then there are the cats, who I'd suggest symbolize both a sexuality—an animal nature—and a tendency towards anarchy, neither of which Juliette is quite ready to accept. (Remember, Vigo's squalid childhood home was overrun with stray cats, collected by his father Almereyda.) The cats savagely interrupt the couples' embrace at first, leading to Juliette's flight from Jean down the prow of the ship. Jean—Hippomenes-like—hurriedly pursues his Atalanta from one end of the ship to the other: when he slips and falls, he is once again pounced on by the near feral cats, who severely claw his face. (Special effects were at a minimum here, and we can assume there was no French equivalent of the Humane Society monitoring the treatment of animals on-set: the cats are pretty obviously just hurled at Jean from offscreen.)
Juliette—standing now with Pére Jules—sees the blood, and suddenly has no hesitation about embracing Jean. As he gathers her in his arms, she is smiling and laughing: she begins kissing and stroking him, almost hungrily, all over his wounded face. The cats, and the blood, and Jean's pursuit, have seemingly awakened something in her, and she is carried happily to their marriage bed as the scene dissolves.
So Vigo has already introduced important elements: we see Juliette's desire to be pursued, and Jean's almost total lack of understanding about what drives his wife. We see Juliette existing on a peculiar spectrum between Jean and Jules, moving back and forth between them. We feel Juliette's longing for the adventure of the outside world, and also her strangely perverse awakening to the different sorts of adventure promised by love and eroticism.
There is another interesting element introduced here as well: at the moment when Juliette reaches the stern of the ship—and Pére Jules—Vigo cuts to an old woman on the shore, holding the hand of a little girl. As she watches the barge pull away, the old woman crosses herself. It is a beautiful shot, but also menacing: loaded with moral judgement, it seems to portend disaster. Snapping us momentarily back to the almost funereal mood of the wedding procession, it seems, in context, almost as if the old woman is not so much praying for Juliette as she is mourning the death of Juliette's innocence (suggested by the little girl at the old woman's side).
What I suspect we're seeing in these early scenes is, in part, a tension between the very traditionally moralistic scenario Guinée wrote, and the far more interesting and complicated film Vigo was determined to make. Guinée's story established a conflict between marital fidelity and worldly adventure, one in which Juliette would need ultimately to submit to the former at the cost of the latter. But Vigo rejects that, and wants to tell a story that is far more morally ambiguous and inclusive. So we feel a stern moral judgement from the old woman on the shore, but it is presented as a dark, provincial, threatening thing. Most importantly, it is presented as something Juliette—and, as we shall see, the film—is leaving behind.
By the following morning, the sun is shining, literally and figuratively. Jean, Jules, and the cabin boy decide to awaken the new "missus" with a song. Music in general—and this song, "The Bargemen's Song," in particular—will play an important role in the film, marking the evolution of characters and cementing the emotional bonds between the three leads. And what's interesting is that this is not really a love song: in fact, it contains some of the tensions of the film, almost warning Juliette that life on a canal barge is neither romantic nor conducive to romance.
We're on the barges to work, not to play,
Not to wander, but to ply the canals all day,
Seated at the helm, we're kings of the realm,
A pretty girl's smile may beguile us a while,
There may be hard times too,
But we'll see them through
With a cheerful heart,
That's what bargemen do!
When young folks set out on a barge,
And live that life day after day,
The sun begins to bronze their skin,
Their eyes turn paler than the wind,
The bargemen have stolen them away…
Juliette, emerging adorably from the cabin below, is delighted, and a cheerful Jean crawls towards her in one of the film's few POV shots. (We are Juliette, and Jean crawls all the way towards us, right over the camera, his body filling the frame.) Last night the cats first came between them, and then became the catalyst (no pun intended) for their love: now, Jean himself has become a playful cat. They embrace, with genuine affection and a powerfully erotic sensuality. Kissing, caressing, laughing, whispering in (and nibbling on) each other's ears, they look for all the world like newlyweds, deeply and passionately in love.
But, as the song had predicted, their blissful interlude is interrupted: they have arrived at a dock, and the unglamorous life of the barge begins to assert itself.
First, Jean begins yelling at Pére Jules about his filthy cats, one of whom has had a litter of kittens on the newlywed's bed. Once again, the cats serve an interesting symbolic role: it's almost as if the kittens are the result of Jean and Juliette's wedding night, their defiling of the sheets standing in for more literal proof of Juliette's deflowering and the couple's awakening to carnal pleasures. (Pére Jules—already well in-tune with his animal nature—makes the connection clearer. "I'm not the father, you know!" he protests, when Jean blames him. And, when Jean threatens to throw the kittens overboard, Jules says "You'd drown your own son!")
There is an extent, I think, to which L'Atalante is largely about the need to reconcile oneself to the messiness and unpredictability of life, and the carnal, imperfect stink of love. Juliette's first instinct here, however, is to clean: to clean up the sheets, to clean up the barge, to clean up the fairly disgusting men among whom she now finds herself. She begins pulling several months worth of soiled bedding from the closet—when she opens the door, another cat leaps out, of course—and demands that the men bring her their dirty laundry. "Do you wash once a year?" she asks Jean in dismay. "If that!" he replies cheerfully. "Well," she says, "that's going to change." (Pére Jules—the patron saint of earthy squalor—naturally protests: "She wants to wash my things?" he says to the cabin boy, bewildered. "What for?" But he relents, "only to keep the missus happy," he says. "I'd do anything for her.")
Jean, stripped to the waist, is helping Juliette wash the clothes, and he's even washing himself: as he rinses his face in a bucket, Juliette playfully pushes his face deep into the water. "Don't you know you can see your beloved's face in the water?" she says. "It's true!…Last year, I saw your face in the water. That's why I recognized you when you first came to the house." She says it jokingly, and Jean responds in kind: he sticks his face first in the bucket, and then repeatedly in the river itself. "I don't see anything!" he says. She is laughing, but she's also a little miffed that he's making fun of her: "Stop it!" she protests. "It's not a game!"
This scene is an excellent example of how Vigo marries realism and surrealism, and finds mythopoetic resonance in the minutiae—even the squalor—of everyday life. As writer and scholar Marina Warner says (far better than I could):
L'Atalante handles the moment lightly, bubbling with all Dita Parlo's effervescent sweetness in the role. Yet the exchange sketches a lover's test Jean has failed, as in a romance of chivalry: only the true lover, her game implies, will pass it. The superstition—the fancy—reverberates with many overtones of enchantment: with the legends of the grail, which can only be seen by a pure knight, and even with the diviner's cups, in which the water reflects the future. But none of this becomes falsely lyrical or self-consciously poetic: it takes place against a backdrop of a large square warehouse, and the acting stays punchy and immediate throughout.8
Another such moment—in which Vigo plays delicately with the film's mythical undertones—comes almost immediately. Still goofing around, Jean chases his bride around the ship—he is always racing his Atalanta—and they end up wrestling, back to back. (One of the things the mythical Atalanta was known for, remember, was besting the Greek hero Peleus—father of Achilles—in a wrestling match, in an unheard-of show of gender equality.) They take turns lifting each other in the air this way, first Juliette on top, and then Jean.
It's another moment played very lightly. (The two are both laughing hysterically.) But I want to unpack it for a minute—if you'll bear with me through another long digression—and suggest yet another myth at work in L'Atalante.
What the site of Juliette and Jean wrestling back to back reminds me of is a Talmudic concept known as the Androgyne Adam: it's the idea that God created the first humans as one creature, male and female both, joined side-to-side or back-to-back.9 "Male and female He created them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created."10 God then split this one joined being into two, with the male being called Adam, and the female—depending on variations of the legend—being either Eve or Adam's apocryphal first wife, Lilith.
I want to focus on the version of the legend in which the other half of Androgyne Adam is Lilith, because it's far more useful to our discussion here. This first relationship failed, apparently, because Lilith refused to be submissive to her husband. "We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth,” she told him. (Most traditions seem to agree that one of the things they argued about was sexual dominance: Lilith wanted to be on top sometimes, and saw no reason why she should always be beneath Adam.) And, most importantly for our purposes, Lilith eventually got fed up and left Adam, going off to live by herself along the Red Sea. When she did, Adam called on God to send three angels to find her and bring her back, but Lilith refused to come.
To the extent that the myth of Lilith survived in Jewish and Christian writings, she was demonized. (Literally, she was presented as a demon.) But the character has been reclaimed—by writers such as Lilly Rivlin—as a feminist archetype, arguing that early Judeo-Christian writers "transformed a creation myth of male-female equality into a morality play, and the independent woman into a jealous avenger."11 Ravlin writes of how Lilith found peace along the Red Sea, preferring "life without a mate—at least a mate like Adam—to giving up her integrity and independence."
I am aware that I'm oversimplifying greatly here: I'm not a Biblical or Talmudic scholar, and I'm mixing (and probably misinterpreting) various fragments of information shamefully for my purposes. (I'm okay with that.) And it goes without saying that Vigo may not have had any of this in mind. (I'm okay with that too. As Warner says—discussing yet another mythological parallel she sees later in the film, with the myth of Cupid and Psyche—"It would be silly to suggest that any of the contributors to L'Atalante had the allegorical myth consciously in mind, but it would also be ignorant to dismiss the parallels for this reason.")
Personally, I find this association too delightful to pass over. To the underpinning legend of Atalanta we have another mythological figure of female power, refusing to be submissive to a man, and fleeing from any man unwilling to acknowledge her equality. To the contradictory interpretations of Lilith's story—patriarchal demon, or feminist hero—I think we can relate the tension between Guinée's moralistic (and rather sexist) scenario, and the far more liberal and feminist film that Vigo delivered. And—for the romantics among us—we have this fantastic image of Jean and Juliette as this conjoined beast: they are two halves of the same being, male and female, who will be separated, and who—if they are to come back together at all—will have to come back together as equals.
Later, in their cabin, Jean is still mocking Juliette's water ritual. "I wanted to see you…in the water!" he jokes. "You laugh, but it's true," she says. "You'll see one day, when you really try." (Again, she says it very lightly, but the challenge has been made, foreshadowing Jean's later trial.) For now, however, they are happy, and getting as close as it's possible to get: they embrace as if they are one being—now joined face to face, instead of back-to-back—and drop out of frame towards the bed. (The shot—in which they literally push right into the camera—echoes the earlier shot of Jean crawling towards Juliette, but now they are moving together as one.)
But, in the very next shot, Juliette wakes up alone, calling for him. He's on deck, at the helm, steering the boat. "It's like this every night," Juliette says sadly, to herself. The next day, this new element of tension has crept into their relationship. "Are you bored?" he asks her, and she asks in turn if they will be there soon. "Where?" he asks. "I don't know," she responds. "Somewhere. Anywhere." Life aboard the barge has become spiritually claustrophobic, and the girl from the small village is still dreaming of seeing the world. She gets excited when Jean tunes the radio to a station from Paris, and he seems to get irrationally annoyed at her excitement and switches the radio off: it's as if he's threatened by her curiosity, and wants to keep her for himself by denying her the world. But Juliette won't be denied: when he storms off, she turns the radio back on and listens longingly to the announcer describing the latest Paris fashions.
The honeymoon—it's safe to say—is over, and both Juliette's growing discontent and Jean's growing anxiety are illustrated in the extraordinary sequence that follows. It is nighttime, and the river is covered by heavy fog. Juliette—sulking—has gone to sit alone on the deck, while the men pilot the barge. Jean goes to check on his wife, but the fog is so thick that he doesn't see her sitting there, just a few feet away. He goes below to look for her, and, when he can't find her, he panics. He runs back above-deck, calling for her—but Juliette ignores him. She sits, motionless—barely visible to us at the end of the screen—and gives Jean a moment to contemplate life without her.
The scene feels like a dream, a surreal manifestation of Jean's deepest fears. It is also, obviously, Juliette's deliberate staging of the test that Jean failed earlier: with the fog, the water has become air, and Jean moves through it like a sleepwalker, trying—and failing—to see the face of his beloved. If you can't see me, you don't deserve me, Juliette seems to be saying.
As Marina Warner writes:
The somnambulistic gestures of Jean, in the seeming underworld of shades and fog, as he looks for Juliette in irrational fear that she has gone, evoke a […] mood of anxiety, looking forward to the eventual, real disappearance of his love into the capital city he has forbidden her to enter. Distant echoes of mythic tropes stir: in classical and modern folklore, the prohibition sets the plot in motion. Here, Jean forbids Juliette to discover 'Paris,' a code word for the world available outside the barge, and in doing so returns to form as the husband-ogre, the Bluebeard who denies knowledge of the secret chamber, and, while threatening to punish curiosity, still hands over the key to the door […] He too lies under a prohibition, however, adumbrated by the test of the water. He must love his bride to be worthy of her, and love requires trust—until he achieves this, he cannot hold her. When he gropes in the darkness to find her in the night of the fog, his fear implies his vulnerability in this area. Until he can dream her with his inner eye, he risks losing her from his sight in the real world.12
The tension between the couple is creating tension on the ship as well. "I've had about of him and his Juliette," Pére Jules grumbles, after witnessing this display. "All day long, it's either smoochin' or squabblin'."
It's time to talk about the marvelous character of Pére Jules. (We have reached the point in the film where Juliette—and we—will get to know him better.)
I have tried, in vain, to find a copy of Guinée's original scenario, because I am fascinated by the reported contrasts between it and the film Vigo made. "The heavy hand of morality lies on the love story in Jean Guinée's original script," Warner writes. "As in the Victorian nursery version of Bluebeard, Juliette will learn to obey her husband."13 But, as scholar Michael Temple says, this conventional morality was anathema to Jean Vigo:
Given Vigo's profound aversion to this popular but petty-minded ideology of common sense and traditional morality, it is understandable that, on a thematic level, he and Riéra should have transformed the conventional values of Guinée's conservative worldview into their own left-libertarian vision of progressive politics. […] In Vigo's world, there is no sin, except for those who refuse to be free.14
The character of Pére Jules may be the best illustration of this. Guinée apparently conceived him as a very conservative, moralizing figure, one who would help Juliette reject the sinful temptations of the world and learn to submit to her husband. Salles Gomes says Pére Jules was "horribly conventional" in Guinée's script:
An old fellow with lots of experience, a bit cynical, brimming with paternal affection for Jean and Juliette, he is of course an enemy to the city and its vices. He teaches the cabin boy, somewhat pompously, about life and human nature. He is, in short, a sort of homespun philosopher full of good intentions and platitudes.15
There is little remnant of that Pére Jules in the drunken, inarticulate, aggressively worldly old sailor brought to indelible life by Michel Simon: as James Agee wrote in The Nation, the film's Pére Jules is a "pre-mental old man," and a "twentieth-century Caliban."16
And yet, I'd like to suggest that Pére Jules serves the same basic role in the film that Guinée intended him to serve: he does embody the basic moral code and ethical philosophy of the film. It's just that it's a very different morality and philosophy than Guinée probably had in mind.
I want to begin by going back a few minutes in the film. When Jean and Juliette are playfully wrestling, they are interrupted by Pére Jules, who arrives back on the barge after going off with a peddler to find parts to fix his broken phonograph. "You call that wrestling?" he says to them. "I'll show you some real wrestling." At which point he proceeds to put on a demonstration of the art of wrestling, by wrestling himself. He pantomimes grappling with an imaginary opponent, playing both roles, on top one moment, on the bottom the other, even arching himself into the air in a way that is similar to what Juliette and Jean were doing.
The scene is played for physical comedy. (And Juliette and Jean are not even watching: they sneak off during his absurdities, to go below.) But what I want to suggest is that Pére Jules can be seen, himself, to represent Androgyne Adam: he is both male and female, androgynous and omnisexual, effortlessly accepting of both his human and animal sides. (After the fog scene, when Jean and Juliette go to lay down with each other, Jules goes to lay down with his cats.) However comically disheveled Jules is, he also represents a balanced, self-contained, holistically inclusive approach to life that provides a model for what the two-headed marriage of Jean and Juliette can be. (Even his name evokes this male/female balance: the masculine "father" combined with a close etymological relative of Juliette's own name.)
We begin to see the different sides of Jules in two extended sequences here in the middle of the film. In the first, he visits Juliette in her cabin, while she is sewing. "Never seen a sewing machine before?" she asks him, but Jules pushes himself right down beside her at the machine and begins operating it. "You're a real jack-of-all-trades," she marvels, and Jules is proud of his prowess. "You wouldn't believe the things these hands have done," he says, and he puts them threateningly around her neck.
Here, and throughout his growing friendship with Juliette, there is just a hint of sexual menace from Pére Jules. Juliette—so young, so slight, so seemingly innocent—seems at risk, being alone in her cabin with this messy, unpredictable bear of a man. And yet Juliette manages him brilliantly, with incredible self-possession and stern affection: refusing to be cowed by him, she pushes him off the bench. "Don't push me, missus," he stammers. "I'm not a bad sort, but if you push me, I push back."
Juliette, however, isn't having any of his masculine bravado. She hands him the skirt she has been sewing, and tells him to put it on so she can hem it.
It is a deft, delicate turning of the tables, playfully feminizing Jules and robbing him instantly of his masculine power. He had forced himself into her personal space—putting his hands on her—and now, undaunted, she returns the favor. "Suck that belly in!" she says, and pokes him, and tickles his stomach as he laughs. "Oh, what a dainty waist!" she says.
And it opens up a whole new world in their relationship, for Pére Jules is not offended or self-conscious, but shyly delighted. He begins dancing around in the skirt, like a Hula girl, and then starts singing tribal songs and banging on the table. "You think you're back in Africa?" she says, and this, too, delights him. "Africa! I've been lots of other places too. Yokohama, Melbourne, Shanghai, Papeete, San Francisco, 1903, with Dorothy! Singapore! San Sebastian!" He starts waving the skirt like a matador, and Juliette, growing tired of his antics, pulls it away from him and asks him to leave.
The delicate balance of power between them shifts again, momentarily, when he refuses to go. But then the cabin boy arrives, informing them that Jules is needed on deck: they have arrived in Paris. "The boss said to get a move on," the cabin boy says, but Pére Jules acknowledges—as we do—a newfound respect for Juliette. "The boss?" he says. "Who's that? Who's the boss around here, anyway?"
Juliette has longed for Paris, and yet—after briefly going up on deck to look around—she does not seem in any hurry to disembark and explore the city. What she is interested in exploring, now, is the world of Pére Jules. She takes this opportunity to enter his cabin, as he entered hers earlier.
The cabin of Pére Jules is an eclectic cabinet of curiosities: it is overflowing with artifacts, toys, clothing, pictures, music boxes, erotica, and other mementos of Jules' travels all over the world. Jules, discovering her there, is neither surprised nor angry to see her poking around his cabin: like a guileless child, eager to show off his collection, he begins handing her different things to delight her. "I'll show you my puppet!" he says, and uncovers a dusty automaton of an orchestra conductor. Disappearing behind it—as if transforming his gross body into this curiously delicate artifact—he begins playfully operating the puppet, while Juliette provides the music for his performance with a hand-operated music box. She's enchanted: it's almost as if they're dancing. (I'd also suggest that this scene reflects a hidden truth about Pére Jules: he is the secret, almost accidental conductor of Jean and Juliette's song, haphazardly orchestrating their relationship from behind the scenes.)
"I never imagined your cabin quite like this," Juliette says: she (and we) might have dismissed Pére Jules as a buffoon, but now it's as if she's seen his rich inner life and entered the colorful memory palace he's built after a lifetime of adventures. He is proud of his things, eager to boast of his travels, and unashamed of anything he has ever felt, or needed, or done. A picture of his younger days, with two scantily clad women on his knees, draws her attention. "That's from Havana," he explains. "That caused some trouble with Dorothy." She picks up a fan from Japan—"Delicate work," he says, pridefully—and a tusk Jules says is from a hunting trip. (It looks like an elephant's tusk, but of course it puts me in mind of the tusk of the Calydonian Boar, presented to the mythical Atalanta after her hunt.) Then he picks up a knife—a navaja, he explains, a Spanish fighting knife—and tests its blade against his own hand, drawing blood.
And then there is a fantastically curious moment: Pére Jules brings the wound to his mouth, and Juliette—looking both horrified and fascinated—sticks out her own tongue as if she sub-consciously wants to taste the blood.
Earlier in the film, the wound on Jean's face—from one of Pére Jules' cats—broke through Juliette's defenses and opened the door to their sexual relationship. Now, something similar happens with Pére Jules himself. It is not—to be clear—that she wants to have sex with him. (There is no hint of that.) But there is, nonetheless, a strangely erotic energy to the scene: she has been exposed to all this evidence of Jules' life—one of sin, sensualism, and exotic adventure—and, perhaps more importantly, she has been exposed to Jules' rich, shameless, self-accepting nature. The curious girl from the tiny provincial town has had her eyes opened to a way of life, and a way of living, she could never have imagined. (Am I stretching the connection to the myth if I suggest, too, that this entire scene evokes the she-bear who suckled Atalanta? For surely Pére Jules—animalistic, and comfortable with his feminine side, as we have seen—can be considered a she-bear. And Juliette is—figuratively, if not quite literally—drawing strength from his life-force here.)
There is a moment—just a moment—when she checks herself, as if repelled by this new knowledge. Just as her instinct after her first night with her husband was to clean, now her instinct is to bandage Jules' wound—to cover the blood (and life) that tempts her beneath something clean and sterile. Now, as then, this glimpse of a frightening and attractive animal nature within herself is symbolized by Pére Jules' cats: one jumps on her, and she throws it off herself in disgust so she can look for a bandage.
But there is no turning back from the life she has glimpsed, the desires she has felt. In one of the quotes above, Marina Warner referenced the story of Bluebeard, and that was a wise association: like Bluebeard's wife, Juliette has entered the forbidden room and confronted a dark and secret world. Unlike Bluebeard's wife, however, she is drawn to it far more than she is repelled by it, and further investigations just deepen its hold on her.
Juliette opens a cabinet to look for a bandage, and makes her strangest discovery yet. There is a picture of a handsome young sailor. "Is this you?" she asks, ready to make the mental leap from this disheveled old rummy to the strapping young sailor he must once have been. But the truth is an even stranger and deeper leap into the erotic imagination. "No, that's my friend, who died three years ago," Jules says. And behind the picture—we see them before Juliette does—is a pair of disembodied hands, lovingly preserved in a jar. "His hands," Jules explains, casually. "All I have left of him."
What a world of intriguing narrative possibilities opens up with this revelation. (What, we wonder, could possibly happen in the remainder of L'Atalante that would be as interesting as the story of Pére Jules and the friend he loved so much that he keeps his photo and hands in a hidden shrine?) And yet neither the film nor either of the characters makes a big deal out of it: this is just one throwaway moment, just one small evocative panel in the crazy patchwork quilt of Pére Jules' life. The accumulated chaos of this room speaks of exotic travels, dangerous adventures, lost and forbidden loves, hardships endured and carnal appetites sated; it contains all the splendor and squalor of a life lived to its fullest. And Juliette is just wallowing in it, fascinated: there is no judgement on her part, no shame on Jules' part, no air of morality on Vigo's part. It is all perfectly natural, gloriously messy, and wonderfully human.
And Pére Jules does not just record the story of his life in this cluttered room full of mementos: it is also written, literally, on his body. When Juliette asks about a tattoo she sees peeking out from his collar, Jules instantly strips to the waist to show her: his body is covered with amateurish tattoos, intimate records of the places he has gone and the people he has known. "They keep you warm," he says of the tattoos. He sticks a lit cigarette in the tattooed mouth around his navel—a fairly obvious phallic gesture—and plays a tarantella for her on his accordion. (A couple of notes on the tattoos: on his arm, we see "M.A.V.", which is an abbreviation for mort aux vaches, or "death to pigs," a slogan that surely would have been familiar to Vigo from his anarchist father. And I have repeatedly seen the tattoo around Jules' belly-button referred to as a woman, which puzzles me: though the omnisexual Jules does have naked women elsewhere on his body, this one, to my eyes, it is clearly a man with a mustache.)
Their increasing comfort with each other, and with each others' bodies, lead to further intimacies: Juliette has picked up a comb and started running it through her hair. "You have pretty hair," Jules says. "So do you, Pére Jules," she says, and she begins tenderly combing his messy gray locks for him. "I'm not used to such attention," he says, ducking his head shyly like a little boy.
It is easy to imagine a version of this story in which this scene is a simple seduction. It is easy, even, to imagine a moralistic allegory—playing off our earlier mythology—in which Pére Jules is the serpent in Eden, corrupting Eve by leading her to knowledge she is not supposed to have. But there is no hint of that here: Jules is too guileless and childlike to come across as threatening; Juliette is too intelligent and strong to come across as vulnerable; and the entire tone of the scene is playful, almost innocent. If Juliette is being "corrupted," it's a corruption she and the film both welcome: she is expanding her mind, greedily collecting experiences, delighting in the earthy richness of the human mind, the human body, the human experience. If anything, Pére Jules' cabin is Eden, before the fall: it is a place without shame.
That would make Jean the serpent, for he promptly arrives to make their playful intimacies into something dirty. He storms about, in an absolute rage: he yells about the clutter, about the cats, about the smell. He points to a sexy pin-up of a nude woman, and demands to know what it is. ("Me, as a little kid," answers Jules dryly, androgynous omnisexual that he is.) Juliette is laughing at Jean's ridiculous fury, and collapses back on Pére Jules bed.
There is a peculiar shot here, loaded with significance but ambiguous due to the editing: Jean, mid-rage, seems to have inexplicably left the room for a moment. Juliette half-reclines on the bed, and Jules sits down beside her; both are laughing. And then there is a sudden cut to another angle, Juliette is fully prone on the bed, and Jules is pulling back from her, as though he has been on top of her. Neither of them are laughing. Knowing what we know about Vigo's health—and the various editorial indignities that cuts of L'Atalante have suffered—we might be tempted to chalk this up to an error: we might assume that a shot is missing, or else that a shot from another take was inserted where it wasn't meant to go. (Fuller mentions that this is a shot from an unused rush, the remainder of which—showing Jules crawling on top of Juliette—was ruined by one of the cats. "Had the shot come off and been used," Fuller writes, "it might have cost Juliette and Jules’s relationship its vital innocence.")
But I rather like the ambiguity of the finished version: the silent, inexplicable shot of Jules pulling back from Juliette is a surreal punctuation on their time together, a passing suggestion that they have shared, and consummated, something very intimate and important. (Naturally, as Jules pulls back, and leaves the cabin, a cat marches across Juliette's chest.)
Then suddenly Jean is back, dragging Juliette from the bed. "I forbid you to come in here!" he bellows, and he cuffs her across the back of the head. Juliette—no shrinking violet—pushes him right back, shoving him into some of Jules's clutter. This set off a destructive temper-tantrum, and Jean begins trashing Jules' cabin, breaking many of his treasured collectibles. He only stops when Jules returns: bizarrely, Jules has run up to the docks to have his head crudely shaved by a dog groomer. It's a strange, childlike gesture of apology and self-flagellation: Jean was furious that Juliette touched his hair, and so Jules has had the offending hair removed. (That he went to a dog-groomer is just a moment of comedy—we cut to the groomer saying "That one had a screw loose!"—and also underlines the animalistic nature of Pére Jules.)
That night, Jean tries to make it up to Juliette, by promising to finally show her Paris. But alas, Jean's tame plan to give Juliette a little excitement is once again no match for the chaotic unpredictability of Pére Jules: the old man has decided he needs to go into town himself, and takes the cabin boy with him. That leaves Jean and Juliette stuck watching the boat, waiting impatiently for the old man to return. Juliette is disappointed, but not really surprised: she loves Jean, but she seems to have accepted that he will never be her guide to the wonders of the world.
Pére Jules, on the other hand, has himself quite a night: he visits a fortune-teller, who also seems to moonlight as a prostitute. (The old sensualist, one suspects, was not entirely immune to Juliette's charms, and is seeking his own outlet for the strange erotic energy they shared.) By the time he returns to the barge, the night is gone, and he is gloriously, joyously drunk. Jean and Juliette must put him to bed like an overgrown child, and Jean announces that they are leaving Paris. Juliette is disappointed, and he promises her they will return and have some fun. "Promises," she mutters: she no longer has any faith that her life will ever be any different than this.
That night, Jean has yet another premonition about losing Juliette. "Ah, here you are," he says, when she climbs into bed with him. "I dreamed you went off and left me." Juliette, it should be said, never shows any sign of being anything less than totally in love with him. We never doubt that she wants him: we just know that she also wants experiences, and adventures, and the freedom to grow and change. She wants, in short, the liberty to be a person, in her own right, not just an extension of him that he locks away in a cabin. The only way he could lose her, we see, is if his constant and growing anxiety causes him to hold on to her too tightly.
Which, needless to say, is more or less exactly what happens. In the interest of bringing this post in at something slightly less than book-length, I'm going to pick up the pace of my reading considerably from here on out. (I also find the second half of L'Atalante a little less interesting than the first—excepting two absolutely extraordinary sequences, which we shall of course discuss at length.)
The next section of the film concerns a character called le camelot (street peddler), played by Gilles Margaritis, whom Jean and Juliette encounter on a brief foray into the outskirts of Paris. (Jean has promised Juliette one day of fun, on their way to Corbeil.) They see the peddler first while enjoying a romantic walk by the river: they are literally skipping along, idyllically hand in hand, when they stop to kiss; but the peddler charges right at them on his bicycle, forcing them to jump apart from each other so he can pass between them. On the peddler's back is a huge trunk with a sign reading "La volaille est a l'interieur"—roughly translated to "the goods are inside"—which mysteriously pops open, as if to tantalize them with his wares. It's hard to imagine a more on-the-nose introduction of a character who will come between the couple, and present Juliette with forbidden temptations.
When Jean and Juliette encounter him again, in a dance club, he greets them warmly: handsome and funny, he oozes effortless charm, and takes over the entire room (and the couple's date). He performs magic tricks, improvises a comic song, dances around offering his wares to the crowd, and finally dances with Juliette while a brooding Jean looks on miserably. If Jean had imagined a rival to take his beloved Juliette away, he could have done no better than this colorful clown who promises her a joie de vivre that dull Jean simply can't match. (And he is not unreasonable in his irritation: the peddler is overly familiar and flattering to Juliette, and—in his improvised lyrics—taking not-very-subtle jabs at Jean.)
But I think it's worth noting how lightly and charmingly Vigo handles this potential love triangle. Guinée's original scenario had apparently called for a seductive young sailor who would fall in love with Juliette, but here le camelot never becomes a serious rival for Juliette's heart. Even his elaborate performances—and his determined attentions towards Juliette—never come across as a serious seduction: he is a salesman, a flim-flam man, a huckster, having silly fun and trying to make a buck. Juliette is amused by him, and flattered by his attention, but we never sense she is truly drawn to him.
For the duration of the dance-hall sequence, L'Atalante becomes almost a different sort of movie, a lighthearted, romantic musical comedy. And I think that is the point. Juliette is never seriously tempted by the handsome young man, but she is tempted by his sophisticated lightness, by the color and happiness and comic possibilities of this mood he creates. After weeks or months in the dark, claustrophobic interiors of the barge—and the grumpy solemnity of Jean—her harmless flirtation is not with the peddler, but with a different kind of life.
To his credit, Jean stoically endures this scene as long as he can stand it, before getting into a scuffle with the peddler and dragging Juliette back to the barge. "At least here you'll behave," he says, and then—cardinal sin—he goes back out without her. But while he is gone, le camelot reappears, having apparently followed them back to the barge. He is now wearing a one-man band rig, bringing the music and fun to Juliette that Jean has denied her. He gives her a scarf, plays her a tune, and offers to take her out and show her Paris. "It's a city bursting with light," he promises, and that is a tempting proposition to a girl stuck in the dark belly of L'Atalante.
Jean returns, and drives the peddler away with a kick to the backside. But that night Juliette lies alone in her bed, fondling the scarf with a smile, and replaying the peddler's words in her mind. Once again, however, it is not really the peddler that tempts her. "It won't take long," he had said, about seeing Paris. "You'll be back in an hour." When she sneaks out, it is not to hook up with the peddler—neither she, nor we, ever see him again—but to venture out into the city on her own.
As rebellions go, this one is relatively innocent and harmless. For all my comparisons with the myths of Atalanta and Lilith, Juliette does not, really, run away from Jean at all: she simply takes a night for herself, and she does nothing more scandalous than walk around Paris peering in store windows. But Jean overreacts: after finding their bed empty—no doubt believing Juliette has gone off with the handsome camelot—he informs Pére Jules that they are leaving Paris. Jules tries to calm him down—"She'll be back in an hour, or maybe tomorrow," he says—but Jean is in a sullen fury. "Tomorrow? Five minutes, and I wouldn't take her back!" When Juliette returns to the dock the following morning, the barge is gone.
And so begins Juliette's exile, and she has a hard time of it. She tries to buy a train ticket to Corbeil, so she can catch up with the barge, but she is robbed by a pickpocket. Now broke, she wanders the city, looking hopelessly for a job to earn some money, but no one is hiring. She is approached by various creepy and predatory men, but turns away from them. Throughout this montage, Vigo continually frames her as a tiny figure in a wide and desolate landscape, emphasizing her solitude and vulnerability in the wider world for which she had longed.
This was the portion of the story that was, in Guinée's scenario, meant to teach Juliette the error of her ways and the dangers of the sinful world for a woman who does not obey her husband. Here, however—unlike in Guinée's version—nothing that happens is her fault, and Vigo never implies that she has done anything wrong. She is not frivolous, she is not stupid, and she is not unfaithful: this is not a sinful excursion, just a gesture of independence and curiosity.
And Juliette's misery is nothing compared to Jean's: if anyone is paying for their sins, it's him. In Juliette's absence, the skipper of L'Atalante has completely fallen apart. Filthy, unshaven, barely dressed, he has almost gone catatonic: Pére Jules tries cheerfully to engage him—playing both sides in a game of checkers, for example—but Jean is gone: without the other half of his soul, he's an empty, pathetic shell of a man.
And then comes the first of the two most memorable sequences in L'Atalante. Jean has reached his lowest point: in his broken state, he is once again like a sleepwalker, searching for Juliette through the fog of his despair. Throughout the film he has been tested, and failed, and now he takes the test again: he plunges into the icy waters of the canal. "Don't you know you can see your beloved's face in the water?" Juliette had told him. "You'll see one day, when you really try." He mocked her then, but he is beyond mockery now: he's beyond jealousy, possessiveness, control; he's beyond logic and realism, moving into the fluid realm of the imagination more effortlessly occupied by Pére Jules and Juliette. There, in the murky waters of the Seine, he finally sees the true face of his beloved.
But this extraordinary sequence—surely one of the most beautifully lyrical scenes in all of cinema—does not precipitate the end of the crisis by itself. Jean has passed his test, and had his vision, and seen the face of his true love. But it is important, I think that he sees Juliette as she was the day he married her, in her pristine white wedding gown, untouched even by the water. (Dasté was actually underwater, but the image of Parlo is superimposed; she is windblown, but she is not intended to look as if she is submerged.) She is ethereal, untouched, idealized. This, I would argue, is the vision of Juliette that Jean tried too hard to preserve—eternally innocent and unchanging—by keeping her away both from the outside world and from the worldliness personified by Pére Jules.
A more mature vision is still required, and Jean is almost—but not quite—ready to have it. The final push is provided by Pére Jules, of course. Throughout the film, Jules has been trying to fix a phonograph he's scrounged together from spare parts, and he was moved to finally do so out of a desire to cheer Jean up. I have given slightly short shrift to the role music plays in Vigo's world, but throughout the film it is used to open his characters up to new emotions (and their own subconscious feelings), and to connect people to one another. The crew of L'Atalante welcomed Juliette—and, in a sense, celebrated her sexual awakening—with a song. Juliette and Pére Jules bonded over the various musical machines in his Cabinet of Curiosities. The Peddler tempted Juliette with music, et cetera. There is even a sense that music—and what it represents—is part of what Jean has tried to deny Juliette: shutting off the radio, driving her from Jules' cabin, dragging her from the dance hall.
I can't possibly do this subject credit here at the end of this post, but I suspect Vigo would agree with these famous words of the 19th century writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann:
Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .17
James Agee—one of the earliest enthusiasts of Vigo's work—described L'Atalante as “very good, spasmodically great poetry applied to pretty good prose.”18 Though we may disagree with his critical assessment—Agee thought Zéro de Conduite the superior film—that's actually a pretty good description of both the peculiar magic of the film and the world of its characters: they exist in an unglamorous, even gritty world of prose, but they are tasked with hearing, and recognizing, the strange poetry within and around them. Music, within the film, is one of the doorways to that poetry: to the realm of the imagination, to the wells of emotion, to the powers of shameless love and lust, to the possibilities of a life lived to its fullest.
And so music opens Jean up to what a conventional, selfish jackass he has been, and makes him realize what is really important. Making the connection between music and the animalistic/sexual symbolism of Pére Jules' many familiars, we get a shot of Jules' repaired phonograph, surrounded by cats. And then Jules and the cabin boy carry the phonograph up to the deck, to play it for Jean.
It is significant, I think, that they do not play the music for Jean inside the barge: Jean has lived, and has tried to force Juliette to live, too much within those limited confines. He needs to be awakened to the wonders of the world, and to know that his love cannot be something that exists only within the hull of the boat. And Jean, finally, gets it: his face softens with wonder, and he immediately runs and begins searching for his wife.
A brief montage shows both Jean and Juliette, in their respective places, searching the shore for each other: they are not together, but they are finally in sync. And, if we doubt it, we get the second—and more important—of the film's two dazzling sequences. Jean's vision of a pristine Juliette in the water was one thing, but now comes the more mature vision that proves he is ready to be reunited with his wife. That night, as each of them lies in their respective beds—many miles apart—they come together in a stunning, sensual, deeply erotic union.
We see them each undress, and then we see them each laying awake in their beds, tortured with longing for one another. Jean's hand moves across his own chest, and we dissolve to Juliette's hand slipping beneath her nightgown to cup her own breast. Vigo cuts back and forth between them as they writhe, shift, arch, caress their own bodies, seeking release; though each is in a different place, they are shot through the same gauzy filter, speckled with the same inexplicable shadows, joined through the power of their longing and the magic of the movies.
This is not Jean's idealized vision of Juliette as a perfect, distant bride, or whatever conventional, bourgeois notions he had about love, and marriage, and how men and women should behave. This is raw, and real, and shamelessly animalistic, and almost ugly in its beautiful honesty. And this is—most importantly—a vision they have together, even though they are apart. Like Pére Jules wrestling with himself, this is a reunion of Androgyne Adam, each finding the masculine in the feminine, and the feminine in the masculine, forming one out of two. This is genuine love, and lust, and connection, in a way I'm not sure any film, before or since, has ever been able to capture.
After this spiritual coupling, their actual reunion is simply a technicality of narrative necessity. Jean further proves his worthiness by searching far and wide for Juliette—now he is the one out in the world, looking small and vulnerable against empty landscapes—but it is Pére Jules who brings about the reunion. After he and Jean are summoned by the head of the company—and Jules is forced to cover for the fact that Jean isn't doing his job anymore—Jules decides this nonsense has gone on long enough, and announces his intention to "bring the missus back." (He appoints himself the angel tasked with chasing down the wayward Lilith.)
And he finds her, with almost ridiculous ease. (We can object to this convenience on prosaic grounds, but the poetic connection they share makes it seem not just plausible, but inevitable.) And it is accomplished, of course, through music: Juliette is working at a palace chansons, a sort of early, coin-operated arcade where people could go to listen to music. With her boss asleep, Juliette has put on a popular recording of The Bargemen's Song, the tune that first welcomed her aboard L'Atalante. Jules, passing by, hears the song playing from the loudspeakers, and—as they connected earlier through musical machines—they reconnect now. Just as he was the one to carry her over the proverbial threshold when she first arrived at the barge, he now throws her over her shoulder and carries her—unprotesting—back there again.
In Guinée's scenario, this was to be a moment of shame and submission for Juliette. In the original version, Jules looked for her against Jean's wishes—he didn't want her back—and found her in a church, praying—presumably—for forgiveness. Jean greets her with anger, and only accepts her back reluctantly after she swears she hasn't been with another man. Even then, the film was to end on a pessimistic note: she had shamed herself, and betrayed him, and their marriage would never be the same.
But here, Juliette is found in a different, secular form of prayer: listening to music that reminds her of her love, of her imperfect life aboard the barge, of the possibility of finding poetry in the prosaic realities of everyday life. As Warner writes:
Vigo of course rejects such ghastly pieties, and he manages to transform utterly Guinée's moralising document about proper marriage, even while keeping the same ending…Mysterious elements help the atmosphere of enchantment and keep didacticism at bay, but above all Vigo suffuses the conclusion with a sweet-tempered and all-forgiving tenderness.19
When Jean and Juliette are reunited, not a single question is asked, and no word of either recrimination or apology is offered; in fact, they don't speak at all. Juliette has been faithful to Jean, of course, but Jean doesn't ask, and doesn't care: he just wants her, with all her curiosities and contradictions. He is done, we assume, with trying to control her, or trying to keep or protect her from the world. He has seen her now, not just as who she was to him, but as who she is, who she must be; and, we suspect, he will now be open to whomever she may have to become. Even forgiveness seems unnecessary: they simply look at each other for a moment, as imperfect equals, and then fall laughing into each others' arms, rejoined as halves of the same whole.
After spending so much of the film in confined spaces, the final shot of the film—the one the dying Vigo, sadly, was too sick to supervise—is transcendent: we have taken flight, high above the barge, and we watch it move gracefully down the river for a moment, before the camera moves ahead of it to show only the sun-speckled waters of a promising future.
From Guinée's sexist morality tale of transgression and submission, Vigo has spun a marvelously modern and progressive tale of expansion and acceptance. Most love stories are about getting together; they are reliant on the illusion that the work is done once you have found your perfect partner. But Vigo knows that getting together is just the beginning of any great love story. The real work is in staying together: in allowing a love to accommodate the needs of its lovers to learn, grow, and change as individuals; to grant them the freedom to have new experiences outside the relationship, and to discover new aspects of themselves within it. Vigo understands that love is messy, mercurial, and mysterious: it must allow for both the poetry and the prose, or else it really isn't love at all.
Next on the Syllabus
Next up is Leni Riefenstahl's troubling masterpiece of Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will (1935), which is seeming horrifyingly appropriate at the moment. (I probably won't get it done in time for Inauguration Day, but I'm aiming to complete it in January.) Then we'll move on to two in a row from French filmmaker Jean Renoir: Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939).
- Paolo Emilio Salles Gomes, Jean Vigo (University of California Press, 1971), 152.
- Quoted in Marina Warner’s L’Atalante, (British Film Institute: London, 1993), p. 9.
- Quoted in Michael Temple’s Jean Vigo (Manchester University Press, 2005), 93.
- Kaufman, Boris. “Une Genie Lucide,” printed in Cine-Club 1949. Available here: http://marcel-carne.com/atalante/2011/02/1949-un-genie-lucide-par-boris-kaufman-cine-club/.
- Quoted in Salles-Gomes, 186.
- Ovid, and Charles Martin. Metamorphoses, X.671–673. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, X.718-19.
- Warner, 38.
- I’m out of my depth here, and won’t pretend otherwise. Like many things worth knowing, I first learned of this legend from Neil Gaiman. (He references the story in Sandman 40, “A Parliament of Rooks,” published by DC Comics, 1992.) However, Gaiman didn’t make it up: here, for example, is a discussion of the legend by Ariela Pelaia on the website About Religion: http://judaism.about.com/od/jewishculture/a/What-Was-The-Androgyne-Biblical-Creation-Story.htm).
- Genesis 5:2.
- Lily Ravlin, “Lilith,” Ms. Magazine, December 1972.
- Warner, 41.
- Warner, 40 .
- Temple, 125.
- Salles Gomes, 155.
- Quoted in Warner, 53.
- E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental-Musik,” in E. T. A. Hoffmanns sämtliche Werke, vol. 1, ed. C. G. von Maassen (Munich and Leipzig: G. Müller, 1908), translated by Bryan R. Simms. Found here.
- Quoted in Temple, 109.
- Warner, 76.