In this introduction, Vigo crosscuts between the wedding processional and the frantic movements of another set of bodies: Père Jules (Michel Simon) and the young shipmate (Louis Lefebvre). The two men exit the church before our first encounter with Jean and Juliette, holding hands as they race back to the barge and prepare for the new patronne. The substitution of two men (one old, the other young) for the beautiful couple is a visual gag – one of many scattered throughout the film and the surrealist canon; however, it also signals the film’s much broader play with bodies, genders and types. As Jean crawls on all fours to greet his new wife and characters dissolve in heavy fog, L’Atalante questions the stability of visual knowledge and rigid visual forms. Père Jules is an important example of this epistemic flexibility and uncertainty. Among the crew of domestic travellers, he is the spectre of colonialism and the embodiment of the exotic threat. Beneath his tattered clothes, he reveals a sprawling map of tattoos, including a male face (that ‘smokes’ from his belly button) and a female figure that stretches out across his back. Adorned in Juliette’s skirt, he transforms into a woman, a member of a primitive tribe, and a matador in Seville. And he describes a photograph of a nude black woman hanging on his cabin wall as ‘Me, when I was young’. Another set of gags, to be sure, but also something more. Like so many aspects of the film, Père Jules is fluid, mercurial, a patchwork of other times and places. For Michael Temple, Père Jules and L’Atalante are inextricably, symbiotically joined: ‘Père Jules becomes the film’s decentred centre, everywhere and nowhere, palpably dispersed in every sound and image, as if Simon’s body and voice had somehow got into the grain of the filmstock’ (2005: 132). The comparison speaks to the unstructured and ephemeral qualities that define Père Jules – torn and dispersed across the celluloid – as well as the collage of influences and inscriptions that L’Atalante shares with the ageing sailor.
Technically, L’Atalante is a narrative film. It contains a skeletal set of plot points, inherited from a script written by Jean Guinée. Love is found in the countryside, lost in the modern city, and eventually regained on the canal. But when ‘L’Atalante’ initially departs, the film and its characters go almost nowhere (that is, until they dock in Paris). There are no recognisable landmarks: just water, a boat, and an indiscriminate shoreline. Meaning emerges out of the mise-en-scène, or the physical and material world of the film, rather than the clarity or accumulation of narrative events. L’Atalante draws our attention to the barge’s cramped interiors, overflowing with dirty dishes and laundry to be done, broken-down machines, and dozens of cats that scratch, breed and blur with the dishevelled Père Jules. The camera squeezes in between objects and bodies, and presents the domestic spaces in awkward, proximate views. Truffaut accused L’Atalante of having smelly feet, an assessment that foregrounds both the corporeal and extra-visual aspects of the film (1978: 27). L’Atalante is tactile, textured, and scented with the grime of the working everyday. But for all of its investments in the sensory-material experience of life spent and worked along the canals, L’Atalante shares in the surrealist search for the marvellous and the magical in the most common of matter. For surrealist poet and novelist Louis Aragon, cinema was privileged in its ability to ‘endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression’ (2000: 52). In Père Jules’s cabin (and the film’s most famous scene), Juliette uncovers his stash of trinkets, an oasis of memory and global travel. For Jean, the cabin is filled with disgusting junk. For Jules, it is a collection of the ‘most beautiful things’. But for Juliette, the objects liberate her from the drudgery of life on the canals, sending her imagination to the open sea.
This division between the everyday and the extraordinary gives shape to the film’s most abundant visual resource: water. As many critics have noted, L’Atalante is a very damp film (Andrew 1985; Conley 2006). Water encircles the barge and dominates the exterior shots (in the form of mist, fog, cloud, and snow). The atmosphere along the canals, like the filth inside the cabins, appeals to our skin and sense of touch. It also contributes to some of the most superlative compositions in the film (and, some might well argue, the entire history of cinema). But within the narrative of L’Atalante, water transcends its physical and aesthetic attributes. Vigo explicitly joins this element to a form of supernatural and cinematic vision. In the first days of their marriage, Juliette holds Jean’s head beneath the wash water and asks, ‘Don’t you know you can see your beloved’s face in water?… When I was little I saw things like that. And last year, I saw your face in the water.’ After Juliette leaves the barge behind for a life in Paris, Jean jumps in the canal, broken-hearted and searching for his beloved. He swims against the sounds of Maurice Jaubert’s haunting score, his body flowing into and out of frame. Juliette appears, angel-like, suspended in her wedding dress and superimposed upon Jean’s body. On the one hand, the image belongs to Jean. It is his vision of Juliette, conjured in her absence. And yet, on the other, it cannot belong to him. It is an image ofJean and Juliette, a multilayered projection of bodies and frames that delights in the material and marvels of cinema itself.
When Père Jules and Juliette sit together at her sewing table, he says, holding up his palms, ‘Look at these hands. You’d never guess all the things they’ve done.’ Of course, everyone aboard the barge works with his or her hands. They are a band of tinkerers, or bricoleurs, collecting, cobbling, making magic, and playing music with the scraps of modern life. Dudley Andrew describes hands and handiwork in L’Atalante as a ‘symbolic cluster’ (1985: 64). There are scenes of hands, comments about hands, and, most remarkably, a set of pickled hands on a shelf. However, the symbolic content of these hands at work (or in jars) extends beyond the diegesis. L’Atalante is a handmade film, like the objects packed into Père Jules’s cabin (‘all handmade’, he insists). It is rough around the edges, made by a band of tinkerers and bricoleurs who borrowed, gathered, and experimented with whatever was at hand. Beneath its messy and imperfect surface, one finds an open text, a dense collection of images and ideas, and a radically mixed Atalanta.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Gaumont. Director: Jean Vigo. Screenwriters: Jean Guinée, Jean Vigo, and Albert Riéra. Producer: JacquesLouis Nounez. Cinematographers: Boris Kaufman and Louis Merger. Music: Maurice Jaubert. Editor: Louis Chavance. Cast: Jean Dasté (Jean), Dita Parlow (Juliette), Michel Simon (Père Jules), Gilles Margaritis (the showman), Louis Lefebvre (the kid).]
James Dudley Andrew, ‘The Fever of an Infectious Film: L’Atalante and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity’, in Film in the Aura of Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 59–77.
Louis Aragon, ‘On Décor’, in Paul Hammond (ed.), The Shadow and Its Shadow, New York: City Lights Books, 2000 , pp. 50–4.
L’Atalante (1934) 51 Tom Conley, ‘Getting Lost on the Waterways of L’Atalante’, in Murray Pomerance (ed.), Cinema and Modernity, Piscataway, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2006, pp. 253–72.
Paul Emilio Salles Gomes, Jean Vigo, London, Faber & Faber, 1998.
Michael Temple, Vigo, Manchester and New York, University of Manchester Press, 2005.
François Truffaut, ‘Jean Vigo is Dead at TwentyNine’, in The Films of My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978 .
Jean Vigo, ‘Toward a Social Cinema’, in Richard Abel (ed.), trans. Stuart Liebman, French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907–1939, volume II, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988 , pp. 60–3.
Marina Warner, L’Atalante, London, British Film Institute, 1993.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.