I had a friend tell me that the first year of her marriage was the worst year of her life. Vigo’s L’Atalante understands this even if I didn’t. Young love that is tumultuous doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t strong. I have no idea if the young couple in L’Atalante will make it or not, no less than I know if my friend and her husband will make it, but I have a suspicion in both cases they will.
L’Atalante is a love story, that warns about the pride and jealousy that can accompany passion. It tells this story with both hard edges and soft, with raw sexuality and tenderness. At the beginning, two young people are walking from their marital ceremony, totatlly in love. This is Jean (Jean Dasté), a barge captain, helmer of L’Atalante and his new bride Juliette (Dita Parlo). For their honeymoon they’re going to Paris, not on vacation but on the barge to work. There is a shot of the wedding guests watching the couple as they leave down the Seine that hilariously shows how highly this union is thought of.
Jean and Juliette are all over each other at first to the chagrin of Père Jules (a peerless Michel Simon), a boorish career sailor, an owner of bizarre and exotic nicknacks from all over the globe, including a friend’s hands in a jar (“It’s all I have left of him”). Père Jules, so gruff at first, emerges as the center of the film, certainly the most memborable part. This odd man, covered at nearly all times by kittens and cats and covered literally at all times by tattoos (“They keep you warm”) is the bear with the heart of gold. He exists as both antitheses and savior of our fragile young love.
The wide-eyed Juliette is amazed by life on the barge and anticipates Paris anxiously. Jean desires to introduce the world to her by himself exclusively and becomes jealous and sullen when she expresses interest in anything else. There’s a fascinating scene when Père Jules give Juliette a tour of his cabin and he cuts himself to prove the sharpness of his knife and Juliette, in a sort of vampiric wonder, looks with her mouth agape and her tongue hanging out, hungry for experience. She is charmed by a magician while she and Jean are on shore leave in Paris and the husband casts her out in a fit. She wanders around the city, amazed but now scared, and discovers a side of humanity that she didn’t know existed and would rather not have discovered. Her purse is stolen which is bad enough but the mob reaction to the thief is downright terrifying.
Jean, in anger, decides to move the barge along, essentially stranding Juliette in the city. Some time passes (it’s unclear exactly how much, in fact the passage of time is a minor inconvenience in L’Atalante, something that contributes to its timeless feel) and the immediate satisfaction of tough pride gives way to late night longing of a more permanent love and desire. There is a remarkable sequence that cuts between the two Jean and Juliette and they make love despite being hundreds of miles away, the want on the screen is powerful.
Jean, having been told that one can see one’s lover underwater, jumps overboard and, in a famous scene, sees Juliette, ghostly in her white wedding dress. This visual triumph is stunning, and for Vigo, who’s entire body of work can be watched in an afternoon and who’s evolution can therefore be tracked in such a short time, it’s not difficult to see the swimmer Taris, star of one of Vigo’s short documentary, in the framing and blocking of the floating Juliette. Vigo’s comic humanism makes an appearance immediately afterwards as when Père Jules is searching for Jean off the side of the barge and Jean emerges on the opposite side, confused about what his friend is looking for. Spielberg employs the same deft humorous touch in a very different scenario in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
With a wonderful help by Père Jules, the two are reconnected and are back in love, though it’s hard not to get the feeling that this is simply the first blow-up between them, but it’s also as doubtless that they are desperate for each other. The movie is a poem to immature love, which is often the most powerful but also the most delicate. They’ve survived this bruising, but for how long?
It’s impossible to mention L’Atalante without intimating that its filming killed Vigo. Already ill when shooting began, Vigo insisted on shooting on location during a terribly harsh winter and that complicated his condition (he was directing at times from a stretcher) and caused his demise at 29. The story goes he gave his life to the cinema, and while that makes a nice line, I can’t see L’Atalante as a sacrifice, nor do I see it as a final gift, made by a man who knew he was dying. This is a movie so earnest, and also so sly about its subject that I can’t help but feel exhilarated and joyous while watching it but then suddenly sad when it’s over. This doesn’t seem like the last word, but one of the first. It’s fallacious to mourn all the movies Jean Vigo didn’t make, in fact perhaps the best thing that happened to his legacy is that he left such a small amount of films behind him, so that we didn’t get to see his misses, or the corrosion of his skills. We might have missed out on a small amount of great movies, but think of how we’d measure Godard if he had quit after Pierrot Le Fou (1965).