Tag Archives: Dita Parlo

L’Atalante (1934)

Jean Vigo, the director of L’Atalante, has always had a certain mystique.

“The ranks of the great film directors are short on Keatses and Shelleys,” Andrew Johnston of the New York Times writes, “young artists cut off in their prime, leaving behind a handful of great works that suggest what might have been. But one who qualifies is Jean Vigo, the French director who died of tuberculosis at age 29 in 1934.”

Jean Vigo was also the the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda.

Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was given as “suicide,” but Almereyda, who had enemies ranging from Léon Daudet on the far-right to Georges Clemenceau the social democratic left, was almost certainly murdered.

The stress of Jean Vigo’s childhood probably contributed to his early death. He and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, and he had to go to boarding school under an assumed name. Sometime in his early 20s he contracted tuberculosis. His first film, Zero for Conduct, was banned in France for 13 years.

Getting banned in France, like getting banned in Boston, is more often than not the sign of genius. Godard’s first movie, Le Petit Soldat, and the revolutionary epic The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo both shared that honor. Had Vigo died even before he made L’Atalante, Zero for Conduct would have assures his place in the pantheon of cinematic rebels.

At first glance, L’Atalante is no Zero for Conduct, Le Petit Soldat, or Battle of Algiers. It’s an intimate, seemingly apolitical film about a working-class couple who marry in haste, quarrel, separate, and, in the end, fall into each other’s arms to live happily ever after. But L’Atalante is no more apolitical than one of Joyce’s Dubliners. A quiet slice of life that leads to an epiphany can be just as revolutionary as a riot, or an NLF bomb in the European quarter of Algiers.

Dita Parlo plays Juliette, a village girl. The film opens with her wedding to Jean, a riverboat captain. There is no wedding banquet. They barely even know the wedding party. What’s more, the bride and groom go straight from the alter to L’Atalante, the barge Jean pilots up and down the Seine from Paris to L’Havre. It’s a working honeymoon. Dita Parlo was 28 when she starred in L’Atalante, but Juliette seems more like 18 or 19. She had no real idea of what she was getting herself into. L’Atalante is no luxury liner. It’s not one of Mark Twain’s Mississippi riverboats. It’s Jean’s workplace. To put yourself in Juliette’s shoes, try to imagine going to your husband’s office, shop, or factory every day to watch him work, but not having a job there yourself.

Juliette has little to do but stare at the riverbank and make a nuisance of herself. Soon, L’Atalante’s crew, a young man known only as “the boy,” and Pere Jules, an eccentric old sailor played by the 39-year-old Michel Simon, begin to resent her presence. She’s disruptive. She hates the old man’s cats. She tries to take control of the housekeeping. They call her “the boss lady,” partly to mock her, but also partly in acknowledgement that she’s a genuinely formidable character under her initial naiveté.

Jean, in turn, resents Juliette when she succeeds in making friends with Jules. She listens to his stories. She looks through his more experienced eyes as the window into the world of travel and adventure she had dreamed about. She sees a photo of a good looking man in his 20s and initially thinks it’s a young Jules. Jean bursts into Jules’ cabin, surprising his wife and his employee. He shoves Juliette. He starts breaking Jules’ keepsakes. He’s no longer a loving young husband. He’s an abusive boss.

L’Atalante shows how in many working-class families there’s no distinction between the workplace and the home, no difference between sex and the economy. What’s more, it does it so subtly that halfway through the film we’ve half forgotten Jules and Juliette are on their honeymoon. Jean and Juliette aren’t the poorest of the poor. Jean has a job during the Great Depression. But the more you think about L’Atalante, the more you realize that Juliette has the patience of a saint. At times she seems too beautiful to be married to a dull, river barge captain. Jean doesn’t seem to know how lucky he’s gotten. She wants to play a game where you look into a bucket of water and see your lover’s image. Jean makes fun of her. She’s excited about hearing a radio broadcast from Paris. Radio was new in 1934. Jean doesn’t think it’s a big deal. When they finally get to Paris, Jean offers to take her out for a night on the town, but Jules spoils it by sneaking off L’Atalante first to go visit a fortune teller/hooker. When Jean finally takes Juliette out to eat — he seems to think it’s an extraordinary act of generosity to take his wife out to eat on their honeymoon — he resents how much she’s entertained by an itinerant street musician/magician and flies into yet another jealous rage.

Yet Jean isn’t a horrible person at all. He’s just a working-class guy so consumed with his job that he neglects his wife. After he assaults the street musician, and Juliette jumps ship to explore the city for the night, he continues on his way to L’Havre. It’s an extraordinary act of selfishness and cruelty, but he soon realizes just how much he’s lost. Juliette, in turn, realizes that while Jean isn’t exactly Prince Charming, she genuinely loves him. A few days of separation feel like a lifetime. They start to dream about each other, their dreams complete with a very frank depiction of them masturbating while they think of each other, a scene that surely never would have passed the Hays Code in Hollywood. They reunite. We realize that they won’t separate again, that Jean and Juliette, like my grandparents’ generation, have decided to make their marriage work in spite of all of the difficulties. There’s no fairy tale happy ending in L’Atalante, just two working-class people who have decided to see the beautiful in their mundane proletarian existence.

Vigo’s camera reflects Jean and Juliette’s sense of “poetic realism.” Indeed, he’s credited with founding the tradition. The light and shadows on the Seine, the fantasy sequences underwater, the city lights along the riverbank, even the radio news bulletin from Paris, ordinary life becomes wondrous and enchanted. The working-class will not only survive, Vigo is telling us. Jean and Juliette will raise a family, have grandchildren, grow old and die together, a practical utopia that Vigo, with his playboy radical father, life on the run, and early death by tuberculosis, never got to see for himself.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion is the kind of film that you can watch once every year from your teens into your old age, and find new meaning with each viewing. The first time I saw Renoir’s masterpiece was on a TV set in a college history class. The restored print had not even been found. It was washed out. The sound quality was bad, and yet I came away realizing that I had just experienced a great work of art. You can listen to Beethoven’s 9th on a scratchy LP and its still Beethoven’s 9th. I not only admired Captain de Boeldieu, I wanted to be Captain de Boeldieu, to put on a pair of white gloves and die for my country as calmly as if I were going to Maxim’s to drink a bottle of fine Bordeaux. My professor corrected me. “That’s the wrong conclusion,” he said. But I was so taken with the romanticism of a doomed Bretagne aristocrat climbing the ramparts of the Wintersborn Castle, playing the flute to distract the Germans so that Lieutenants Marechal and Rosenthal could escape and get back into the war to fight for France, that I had missed how Grand Illusion is a statement about the futility of war.

The next time I saw Grand Illusion, I knew more about the history of France, the First World War, and, above all, the Dreyfus Affair. The film revealed an entirely new layer of meaning. A real life Captain de Boeldieu, not only an aristocrat but a professional soldier, would have been on the side of the anti-Dreyfusards. He would have been in favor of keeping an innocent man on Devil’s Island for the crime of being a Jew. That he could turn to Major von Rauffenstein, his German counterpart, point at Rosenthal and say “his word is as good as mine,” demonstrated an intelligence and ability to rise above anti-semitism to go along with his honor and patriotism. Captain de Boeldieu is a heroic figure like few others in French, American, or any cinema. He has more than physical courage or the willingness to die for a higher idea. He’s able to die for the right higher idea. Captain de Boeldieu doesn’t die for France. He dies because he knows the ideals of the old aristocracy are destructive. That Rosenthal and Marechal are officers and gentlemen, von Rauffenstein regrets, is part of “the charming legacy of the French Revolution.” Captain de Boeldieu, to use a term popular on the “intersectional left,” knows how to “step up and step back.” Rosenthal and Marechal are the future. Democracy is the future. It’s no mystery why Joseph Goebbels declared Grand Illusion “cinematic enemy number one.”

After the United States and Russia got into a conflict over Ukraine, and people in my Facebook feed started talking about another First World War, I decided to watch Grand Illusion again. Major von Rauffenstein treats his prisoner Captain de Boeldieu with the courtesy he deserves as a “gentleman.” I used to think there was something admirable in the idea of their solidarity, even if it wasn’t exactly solidarity, but a recognition of privilege. Our oligarchs today, the gangsters around Vladimir Putin and the bankers and financial swindlers around Barack Obama, seem entirely less civilized. It’s all about smashing and grabbing what you can. Obama declined to prosecute the American bankers who crashed the economy in 2008, accorded them the privileges of their rank, but he had no qualms about freezing the assets of pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Our aristocrats, our Goldman Sachs CEOs, our Koch Brothers, Russia’s natural gas and oil barons have no code of honor. They don’t care who they evict from their houses, what kind of poison they feed kids not their own, or how much disinformation they pump out about global warming. Compared to the people Obama works for, Renoir’s Lieutenant Rosenthal, the son of a rich banking family who had enough patriotism to fight for his country, and, once taken prisoner of war, shared his food with the working class Marechal, seemed like a vision of a more civilized age gone forever.

But then I realized that’s not exactly the message Renoir wanted to send. The ruling class in 1914 wasn’t civilized. They were bastards willing to send 8 million young men to their deaths, to destroy Europe for reasons I don’t even think they understood. In 1937, they were getting ready to do it all over again. Rosenthal, Marechal and de Boeldieu may have been admirable as individuals, but they were trapped in a horrible cycle of destruction. Renoir’s original draft had Marechal and Rosenthal escape the Wintersborn Castle only to get back into the war and get killed. Why does de Boeldieu sacrifice his life? Just for the principle of it? He doesn’t exactly like Rosenthal and Marechal. He’s just their superior officer, a captain willing to go down with his ship. He steps aside for the future, but never quite realizes that the future might not be the democracy. It might be something much worse.

Jean Renoir was a left wing filmmaker. So why did he make a humanist film instead of an anti-imperialist one? True, the Soviet Union had degenerated into Stalinist totalitarianism, but in 1917 it was the communists who were leading the movement to end the war, not liberal humanists. That’s when I realized Grand Illusion is even richer and more nuanced that even I, as a great fan of the film, can express in one review. Grand Illusion is an anti-imperialist film.

Let us consider one scene early in the movie. The French prisoners, bored, missing the company of women, stage a musical comedy. They get themselves done up in drag. They invited their German captors. In the middle of a high kicking routine, Marechal rushes to the stage with a German newspaper. “We’ve captured Douaumont,” he says. “We’ve captured Douaumont.” Just then, the musical comedy stops. Men dressed as women snap to attention and sing the Marseillaise. France has won the battle of Verdun. They’ve regained their manhood and their patriotism after weary months as prisoners of war. Later, of course, we see another headline. “Germans capture Douaumont.” It was all useless. War is futile.

Doing a bit more reading on the Battle of Verdun reveals yet another layer of meaning beneath the film’s anti-war message. Douaumont wasn’t retaken for France by white Frenchmen but by the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco, by white French soldiers alongside black Senegalese soldiers. Later, when de Boeldieu, Rosenthal and Marechal are confined to the Wintersborn Castle, we see that one of their fellow prisoners is black. He’s working on a painting. He approaches Rosenthal and Marechal for their opinion but they refuse even to acknowledge him. The same two soldiers de Boeldieau died to help escape, two individuals who have made a heroic effort to overcome their own ethnic differences, who, earlier, were seen celebrating the recapture of Douaumont, won’t even look at a black soldier who almost certainly risked his life at Verdun to do it. History won’t end with a peaceful, unified Europe, Renoir suggests. It won’t end with the end of anti-Semitism or militarism. It probably won’t even end with the fall of European imperialism, but that’s what’s coming.

Dien Bien Phu is less than 20 years away.