L’Atalante

‘The mythological ground of Art is littered with the scattered corpses of lost heroes and heroines.’

So we might be heard to remark, downing a last pint of bitter with the rabble in our local Public House before kicking off another opium-fuelled, semi-apocalyptic night of gambling and debauchery at the Notting Hill Bear-Baiting Pit to the soundtrack of Jim Morrison as read by William Burroughs.

Our modern era tends to fetishise the Romantic cult of the tragic and self-destructive lone genius. It’s a familiar legend and often takes two distinctive forms: In the one, a young flame burns bright and fast, and is extinguished early (think Byron, River Phoenix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse); in the second the artist’s talent is only fully appreciated after their anonymous death (think Kafka, Arthur Russell, Van Gogh, John Kennedy Toole).

In both of these forms the artist appears as an elevated ephemeral presence. Their death is often portrayed as being somehow synonymous with their art, as though in the pursuit of that art they really had no other option but to live fast and die young. Often, in hindsight, they are seen as doomed before they started: silent, enigmatic, unknowable. In the latter form (the Kafka-Russell-Van Gogh form), this inscrutable muteness stems largely from the fact that the artist was never given the chance to exist in the public sphere –limited (or no) words beyond their work, no interviews, no way of being seen from other angles; in the former, the enigma is retained and fostered through the alluring tragedy of a young death – the artist never had the chance to exist in public whilst growing old.[1]

Jean Vigo, director of L’Atalante has a little of each of these forms in him, and a third, having died both as a young and mostly unrecognised talent, and directly in the pursuit of his art.[2] The supposed tragedy of his existence[3] (which takes as its basis the assumption that the sum of a life is simply the ‘things that happen’ to a person as opposed to the journey and growth of one’s spiritual and emotional character) can lead to critical portrayals of his human qualities (and from there, his work) that are neither accurate, nor essentially in keeping with what we can tell about his perspective on the world as evidenced through his films and writings and as recalled by his friends.[4]

Here we find that Vigo belongs on a different list. On the whole the majority of critical responses linger, not on his definitive genius, but on his potential for genius. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that what remains (ie the work itself) is in itself by no means fully expressive of what he seemed capable of.

This is obviously a very confusing standpoint. If Vigo did not produce the goods[5] then is his legend founded wholly on the tragedy of his death? And if this is indeed the case, could we all not be appreciated many years after we die?

It is clear that the ‘tragic’ reading[6] of his life might initially have been the only reason Vigo’s films, not only continued to linger, but also gained a significant following in the decade after his death. But it is clearly only possible to consider his legend from the perspective of what is there to be seen. Similarly, to speak of the films Vigo might have made had he not died so young, as many rapt fans are wont to do, is as pointless an act of imagination as to speculate on, say, what a Unicorn might enjoy eating for breakfast (pancakes).

‘As for L’Atalante, there are as many ways to love it as there are ways to love.’[7]

L’Atalante is the kind of film that fans tend to whisper about in tones of hushed reverence. Those who don’t ‘get it’ decry it loudly as over-rated nonsense. Some postulate that Vigo’s previous film Zéro de Conduite is his real masterpiece and more truly representative of his anarchist social-political character. It’s an argument that has raged since L’Atalante’s 1934 press screening, subsequent theatrical recut, and ultimate commercial failure: is it actually any good? Or just flashes of a good film? And does it represent Vigo the man? In this context, I think it appropriate to comment from a particularly personal standpoint on what it was about this curious, strange and tender film that affected me.

As a first-time viewer what really strikes you first about the film is the lightness of directorial touch. Vigo wasn’t purist avant-garde, but a firm advocate of socially committed experimental cinema. From this standpoint we get a lot of documentary-esque shots of barges and the French canal system. Vigo’s director of photography was Boris Kaufman, who went on to win an Oscar for the cinematography in On the Waterfront, and if there was to be nothing else worth seeing in the film it is stunningly shot.

This very authentic sense (one might consider it as an expression of Vigo’s social conscience – for example, the film uses shots real unemployment lines to touch on the economic crisis of the time) is offset by a tremendously playful script and warm, open performances from the cast. Much has been written about the tour de force performance Vigo coaxed out of Michel Simon as the old Seadog Pére Jules, but Jean Dasté as the inexperienced, clumsily-loving Jean and, in particular Dita Parlo as the by turns innocent and curious, erotic and feline Juliette are stunning. There’s an abundance of comedy throughout the film. On the kinds of issues that, even today, are often naturally approached from a moralising and judgemental position, the film is surprisingly neutral. This neutrality makes it feel strangely contemporary – not even contemporary – something still existing beyond, in a more enlightened future. Its approach to gender relations, and in particular its approach to the idea of what love might be or mean is way ahead of its time. It could almost act as a manifesto on gender equality.[8]

On paper Vigo’s last film is a very simple love story (‘run of the mill’, as described by film blogger James Travers). The script – a nothing piece by a man called Jean Guinée – was given to Vigo by his producer and ardent supporter Jacques-Louis Nounez with the intention of keeping him out of trouble (Zéro de Conduite had been banned for subversive content)

This original screenplay was so stolid and moralising in tone that the radical Vigo apparently exclaimed: ‘What the fuck do you want me to do with this – it’s Sunday school stuff.’[9] But some days later he had suddenly and unexpectedly become excited at the idea of filming it, having apparently found a way to operate within its template.[10]

In fact, all he ultimately kept was the bare bones of the plot. All the moralising overtones of the Guinée script were not simply abandoned but operated against. Out of a traditional Romantic tale full of petit-borgeouis moralising, Vigo created something that could easily be called subversive. By eschewing the traditionalist moral ‘lessons’ of the parable, whilst keeping the traditional format of the plot, Vigo transformed a rather conventional love story into simply: love, rendered.

Don’t write love poems…’

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is the hardest subject to breach – it’s necessary to wait until one’s talent is fully formed to even think of making an attempt.[11]

Vigo is often described as a visual poet. In contrast to what might be implied when critics write extensively of his potential, his talent was certainly fully formed at the point of making L’Atalante. Alone, the film stands as an effervescent affirmation of non-judgemental love – a testament to the necessity of independence and equality. Considering the time it was made, but also the incredible difficulty of the shoot (Vigo directed most of the film from a stretcher) and his relative inexperience, it’s quite an astonishing achievement. As Marina Warner notes in her fantastically perceptive book for the BFI: ‘Vigo’s complete transformation of pessimism into hope fulfils the conditions of classical romance, of course, but it also proposes a modern strategy to the dilemmas of life and love, as opposed to morbidity and misogyny. Paradoxically, his romance represents a turning away from romanticism.’

To attempt to go into further depth about this film would surely take a much longer article, and would, I’m afraid, make something of a love poet of me. In that sense it might also (and with justification) be read as contrary to the (somewhat contradictory) point this author offers, and in steadfast opposition to the advice of Rilke – my skills notwithstanding. Best then to leave on one last quote from one of the film’s other admirers:

‘L’Atalante is a film whose feet smell.’

So said Francois Truffaut, and I can’t think of a more fitting appraisal. This statement is not simply an affectionate comment on the fact that the film is flawed. It touches on Vigo’s inclusion of a hardened reality and a social/political message at the heart of a love story. It also implies, indirectly, the film’s most subversive message: that there is joy to be taken from the smell of feet. More, that there is nothing really beyond the fact that nothing is perfect: the willing acceptance of flaws is all there is. Idealisation, then, is a misnomer when real life is so much fuller.

The difficulty in writing about L’Atalante has not been finding words. Quite the opposite: the difficulty for me has been attempting to present a balanced and realistic portrait of an actual film that can actually be seen in an actual cinema – within the confines of a word limit, and without going overboard with my evident enthusiasm.[12]

Finally I would say that, especially when considering the absence of a current DVD edition of the film, L’Atalante’s extended run at the BFI Southbank should be a cause for celebration. I would recommend anyone with a passionate interest in film to take the opportunity to see this on the big screen.


[1] The most debilitating disease affecting artists is, of course, age (or McCartney Syndrome as it’s better known). This illness strikes the taste functions primarily, eventually leading to an overload of the dignity system, until it’s finally revealed that everything we thought we admired and appreciated about this person was in fact a total lie, the once-was genius definitively weathered away in a storm of tabloid filth, leaving only the Madame Tussauds grinning waxwork exterior, carted out at awards ceremonies as some kind of human accessory to younger, more successful artists, themselves already hard at work destroying any public goodwill… For notable exceptions to this rule, see David Bowie who has managed to exist as a very public figure whilst retaining his enigmatic status and aging, for the most part, with great dignity (Backstreet-Boys-meet-Liberace 90s stylings aside).

[2] Vigo died from septicemia, sustained as a consequence of the months of intense work the filming of L’Atalante took on his already frail, tubercular body, before the film was ever released.

[3] From anonymous beginnings as the weakly and incognito son of a murdered former anarchist and entrepreneur to an inauspicious end at the tender age of twenty-nine, leaving behind a wife and young child.

[4] It’s interesting here to note that the act immortalisation works on the basis of emotional preservation; using tragedy and pathos as a tool we mummify the artist, their life and their works, in the cultural consciousness. Hence an artist who has not lived a tragic life is harder to elevate. Conversely, the press will often be seen hounding troubled stars to their deaths. Artists of supreme talent in Western society have taken on the mantle of the sacrificial lamb or martyr; this is evidenced by the public reaction before and after their deaths.

[5] See film critic Gilles Jacob writing in the magazine Raccords in 1951 for an argument against falsely perfecting the image of Vigo.

[6] Which can be seen taking root in an obituary written by the actor and screenwriter Frédéric Pottecher and published in the magazine Comœdia 2 days after Vigo’s death

[7] Paul Ryan, Jean Vigo: The Ghost in the Vanguard.

[8] For comparative purposes, see Cathy Landicho’s fantastically incisive recent article on this site about gender roles in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Also, compare this to an article written about L’Atalante by contemporary internet critic Dennis Grunes in 2004 (you’ll find the paragraph I’m thinking of specifically as the third from the bottom of the page, beginning with the words ‘On the other hand…’

[9] Marina Warner, L’Atalante (p.9) quoting Pierre Lherminier from his book Jean Vigo.

[10] ‘The madman straight-jacketed’ as Michael Temple puts it.

[11] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

[12] And without having mentioned any specific scenes!

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