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.