(Jean Vigo, France)
There isn’t a cinephile in the world who hasn’t wondered what Jean Vigo would have done had he not died so young. He only made two features, my choice for the best picture of 1933, Zero de Conduite, and my choice for the second best picture of 1934, L’Atalante. He died at the age of 29 shortly after completing L’Atalante but made a lasting impact on French and world cinema on the strength of these two remarkable pictures.
I first saw L’Atalante in an undergrad class on French film many years ago and I have to admit I didn’t care for it all that much at the time. I found it slow and didn’t particularly relate to the characters. Since then, having put some years of experience under my belt, I have seen the picture three or four more times and each time I see it I love it a little more. The boredom and inability to relate I felt fifteen years ago had more to do with my own inexperience than with any shortcoming of the picture. The more I lived, the more I recognized the characters and could understand the subtext of the film.
The opening shots show us a wedding procession of a young, shy couple making their way through a sad looking French village. We catch little snatches of conversation about how the man is a stranger and how the young girl always wanted to get out of their parochial village. We learn the groom is the captain of a river barge and they will make their new life together in the close confines of the boat. They walk directly from the church to his barge while the wedding guests look on, neither with sadness nor anger – they just look shell shocked, amazed that someone is actually getting out of the village.
At first Jean (Jean Dasté) is awkward, but attentive to the needs of his new wife. His crew, a young cabin boy and a grizzled first mate Jules (Michel Simon), do their best to make their new “boss lady” welcome, but the signs of disappointment are immediately apparent on her face. The boat is dirty and cramped, and the route won’t take them to many interesting places except Paris, which they may or may not have time to see. This isn’t what she had in mind at all.
Juliette (Dita Parlo) wanted out of her small town life and we image Jean was the first chance of escape she saw. Not that she married him only because his occupation could take her to exciting new places; she isn’t that calculating. Perhaps though she mixed up her excitement at the experiences he offered her with love, something young lovers (and too often old lovers who should know better) often do.
The story explores the limits of Jean and Juliette’s relationship as it is strained by claustrophobic quarters, the intrusive cats of Jules, the fading luster of traveling up and down the Seine, and the normal disappointments every couple experiences after living together for a while as the monotony of everyday life overshadows the initial giddiness of love and lust. Their small quarters highlight how weak their relationship really was from the beginning. Jean is jealous of Juliette when he catches her talking to Jules in his room. Jules has photos and souvenirs from his voyages around the world and she is fascinated by them. There is never any threat of the two of them having an affair, but Jean is outraged, throwing objects around the room and telling her she cannot go to Jules’ room. Jean doesn’t understand why she would need or want more companionship than him, as though she is supposed to anxiously wait for him when he is working, hang on his every word at meals, and only want to spend her free time with him. This becomes an especially big problem when he takes her for her first visit to Paris and she attracts the attention of another man sending Jean into a jealous rage.
L’Atalante is a beautiful movie about the drudgery of relationships that picks up after the “happily-ever-after” and reminds us that the wedding bells that so often end films are actually just the beginning of a lifetime of drama. Vigo de-romanticizes love and marriage by showing how hard it is to really make a marriage work, especially when its members come at it with differing expectations and are unable to articulate their feelings. By setting his tale in the unglamorous world of shipping and populating it with working class characters Vigo lifts the glamorous veil off of love and demonstrates his profound respect for those who were (and still are) excluded from major motion pictures.