Jean, a barge captain, marries Juliette in her rural village. The newlyweds depart for Paris to complete Jean’s cargo delivery. They are joined on the boat by Père Jules and ‘le gosse’, a cabin boy. Jean promises Juliette a night away from the monotony of the barge once they reach their destination. However, their shipmates thwart these plans. Père Jules and the cabin boy escape into the streets of Paris before them and Jean cannot leave the boat unattended. Juliette eventually sneaks away to explore the city on her own and Jean responds to the betrayal by leaving her behind. The two reunite with the help of Père Jules. He discovers Juliette in a music shop and returns her to the boat and her beloved.
By nearly all accounts, including Jean Vigo’s, L’Atalante killed its director. Vigo was just 29 years old. L’Atalante was only his fourth film and his first feature-length project. The film depicts the first days of marriage between Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlow) – a barge captain and a young woman from the countryside – as they sail along the waterways with a small and peculiar crew. L’Atalante was shot on location between November 1933 and January 1934 in the expansive network of canals that stretch from Paris northward to Le Havre. Vigo had suffered from respiratory illnesses throughout his life and the harsh winter accelerated his already deteriorating health. He spent the final weeks of production directing from his sickbed. His cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, shot the concluding scene – a startling aerial view of barges and canals – without him. Vigo never saw the footage. Three weeks before his death, the Gaumont studio imposed a final indignity upon his work. L’Atalante premiered in September 1934 at the Colisée cinema in Paris as Le Chaland qui passe (the passing barge), a mangled version of Vigo’s original. The film had been re-edited, renamed and rescored to satisfy popular tastes and a set of spectators who never arrived. Le Chaland qui passe quietly disappeared from public view and Vigo died on October 5 1934, eight months after completing L’Atalante.
It is difficult to extricate L’Atalante from the tragic biography of Jean Vigo and the mythologies that have emerged in the aftermath of his early death. Vigo has come to occupy a monumental position in the history of French cinema, at once genius, martyr and patron saint of the French New Wave. Successive rounds of archival research and restoration (by Gaumont in 1940 and the Cinémathèque française in the 1950s) brought L’Atalante into contact with the energetic post-war cinephiles and critics in France. Just a few short years after his death, Vigo was resurrected as ‘cinema incarnate’, the model of radical and rebellious experimentation to which all filmmakers should aspire (Temple 2005: 2).
In L’Atalante, however, another mythology circulates, one that offers a framework – beyond Vigo’s talent and sacrifice – for reading and understanding the film. The title refers to the name of the barge that floats Jean and Juliette towards marital conflict and resolution in Paris, but it also refers to a minor figure from Greek mythology: Atalanta, the daughter of Iasus, abandoned on a mountain and raised by bears (in one version of the myth) or hunters (in another). Atalanta is trained to fight and hunt. She refuses to marry and sails with the Argonauts as the only woman in their crew. She is an orphan and an oddity, at once animal and human, male and female, mortal and goddess. Her mixed history and genealogy challenge tidy taxonomies of both gender and metaphysics. One can easily find points of comparison between the figure of Atalanta and the character of Juliette, the barge patronne who leaves her rural home at the start of Vigo’s film and sets sails as the only woman on board. But more interesting is the way in which this foundational myth prefigures the visual, narrative, and socio-historical mixtures that make L’Atalante such a remarkable and un-categorisable work.
L’Atalante combines the diverse modes of experimental filmmaking that constitute the European avant-garde in the 1920s and 30s. The film brings together the city symphony, surrealism, and poetic realism; it is at once an exploration of the labour and lives of the French working class and a study of cinematic work and ways of seeing. L’Atalante likewise intersects with cinema’s transition to sound, a moment of visual and industrial flux that manifests itself within Vigo’s film as yet another site of experimentation and play. The first scene exemplifies the film’s composite form. L’Atalante begins with the sound of ringing bells and a montage of establishing shots: an image of the barge’s stern; an enigmatic burst of mist that covers and conceals the canal; and an extreme low-angle shot of a church’s spires. This opening sequence asks us to consider: Where is the sound coming from? And what does it mean? The bells ring out across these shots, attaching to each in turn. The sound seems to emanate from the ship, the clouds, and, finally, the spires. We soon see Jean and Juliette exit the church and can perhaps retroactively read the sound as wedding bells and the film’s first images as a map of the processional to come. The young couple will make their way from the ceremony to the awaiting barge, with the villagers trailing behind them. From here, however, the narrative ambiguities and visual associations continue to gather. Jean and Juliette glide through the village streets, then a field of haystacks, a forest of flowers, and a barren field before finally arriving at the ship. As spectators, we never know where they are, how much progress they have made, or how these distinct spaces are connected. Each cut introduces a radically new geography and a different cinematographic style. Jean and Juliette move across, away from, and into the frame; they are close, distant, and fragmented into parts. The first shot recalls the absurd processional of Entr’acte (René Clair, 1924), while the last approximates the strict formalism of Hans Richter or Walter Ruttman. Rather than adhering to a particular visual school, Vigo and Kaufman cycle through approaches. Each shot reframes and rethinks the relationship between human figures and the land.