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Poetry and anarchy seldom are thought of as traveling companions, much less bedfellows. But they are both in Jean Vigo's masterpiece, L'Atlalante (1934). It landed with a thud when it premiered, but it's constantly being rediscovered and necessarily restored, since its original distributor chopped part of it away. Its last missing piece, unearthed in the vaults of Italy's state broadcast archive in 1990, cements its stature as a film that leaves you wonderstruck. Like Murnau's Sunrise (1927), it makes you feel you are sharing a dream with the man who made it. Or, rather, through whose being the films seems channeled.
And yet for all its primal urgency and the rough textures of its everyday working world, Vigo's film was meticulously assembled. The spell it casts begins with an almost crude simplicity, a wedding procession walking at a fast clip from an old village church to a nearby riverbank and a barge, the name of which gives the film its title, moored alongside it. The groom, wearing a visored cap, immediately changes from his suit to the rest of his work clothes. After perfunctory goodbyes to the wedding gathered onshore, the captain (Jean Daste), his bride (Dita Parlo), the engineer (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) lose no time departing. The bride, smiling on her way from the church, now looks decontextualized, unmoored, a little lost, a little sad, as she walks the barge's long hatch cover in a wedding gown forlornly out of place.
Clearly she hasn't known her groom long. Clearly part of her reason for getting married was to escape her provincial setting. "Are you bored?" he asks, seeing that she obviously is. "I'll show you the world," he adds, placatingly. "River banks," she sighs, and their marriage festers. This is probably the place to say that Vigo avoids barge-tour lyricism. He was working-class poor, and concentrates on the claustrophobic barge life and the claustrophobic psychic space in which all co-exist, not the bucolic charms of the countryside through which they pass as they navigate canals, locks and rivers all the way to Le Havre by way of Paris. And yet Vigo, whose life was cut short at 29 by tuberculosis after completing this first feature and who died thinking he was a failure, has not become known as the father of French poetic realism for nothing.
The barge, which has a lot of mileage on it, and the take-the-camera-into-the-streets approach that caused the film to be dismissed as amateurish when it opened and later was admired and emulated by the New Wave filmmakers, may look realistic (interiors were shot at Gaumont's studios), but the film plays like a rapturous dream. Vigo is too keenly aware of loss to ever romanticize the world of his films, but when the young wife, Juliette, storms off to make more contact with the bright lights of Paris after hubby Jean whisks her away in a possessive rage when he thinks her too receptive to the glib charms of a peddler in a dance hall, his angry sulk gives way to a catatonic depression. He does seem a bit of a pill. Bereft, he jumps into the river, ready to end it all, until he sees a vision of her while underwater and changes his mind. It's the scene most often cited by admirers of the film.
And yet the scene that seems the key to the film, and the heart of it, takes place in the cramped cabin of the gruff old engineer, Simon (the best role of a distinguished career and the actor's own personal favorite). You expect his living quarters to reflect the grizzled roughneck of a character who drinks too much. But far from being littered with empty bottles and cigarette packs, the place is an enchanted cave, filled with exotic objects, souvenirs of his globe-circling life, many pictures of women, numerous mechanical objects, including figurines, some of which he has restored to working order, some of which he hasn't got around to. It's clear that he's not just inviting her into his cabin; he's inviting her into his psychic space. Far more resonantly surrealistic than the oft-cited underwater scene is this one in which he shows Juliette his assemblage of mementos.
None are in themselves valuable, but they're surrealistically juxtaposed. In their arbitrary, capricious nature and apparent disorder, they amount to a rejection of the bourgeois world - much like the Dadaist and surrealist art of the era. Simon borrowed a lot of the coarseness of this film's Jules from the title role of Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), which made him a star in the role of a contentedly homeless ne'er-do-well and gave rise to the Al Jolson vehicle, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933). Simon's Jules is just as much an anarchic force as Boudu, totally uninterested in integrating into bourgeois society. He reminds us that while much has been written about Vigo the lyric poet enthralled by dreams and surrealism like many artists of his time, Vigo was in real life the child of a father who died in prison for his anarchic beliefs. His first short film, A propos de Nice (1930), subverted the travelogue. Once past the obligatory palm trees, promenades and joyless rich in casinos, he couldn't wait to cut to the working classes who lived in Nice's back streets.
Although much in L'Atalante seems to have wafted up from Vigo's subconscious, it was in fact carefully planned. Vigo himself scoured flea markets and junkyards to get just the right blend of objects to embody Jules's cave of memories. Long before the end, there's no mistaking the reason Jules is referred to as Pere Jules. When Jean stops functioning, Jules steps in and saves his job. In the end, after Jean and Juliette have broken up and are reunited, thanks to Jules finding her while Jean sits and mopes, Jules emerges an archetypal father figure. Literally and figuratively, his charmed and charming Mr. Fixit lowers the lid on them (well, hatch cover) after they go below deck, together again. There's something transcendentally endearing about an anarchic figure, far from destroying his world, fixing it and bringing it back to life. L'Atalante is a spellbinding excursion, lulling you into its fluid, layered world.
Producer: Jacques-Louis Nounez
Director: Jean Vigo
Screenplay: Albert Rira, Jean Vigo (adaptation and dialogue); Jean Guine (scenario)
Cinematography: Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman; Jean-Paul Alphen (originally uncredited)
Art Direction: Francis Jourdain
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Film Editing: Louis Chavance
Cast: Michel Simon (Le pre Jules), Dita Parlo (Juliette), Jean Dast (Jean), Gilles Margaritis (Le camelot), Louis Lefebvre (Le gosse), Maurice Gilles (Le chef de bureau), Rafa Diligent (Raspoutine, le batelier)
by Jay Carr