To live happily ever after with the one you love, you must be
able to live with them at all. It is not that simple. Little problems must be
worked out. She does not like cats on the table while she is eating. He has a
closet filled with a year's dirty laundry. She treasures their private moments
together. He treasures his best friend, who is bearded and garrulous and
arrives at meals in an undershirt. She wants to see Paris. He worries about his
work. You see how it is.
Vigo's "L'Atalante" (1934) tells such a love story. It is on many
lists of the greatest films, a distinction that obscures how down to earth it
is, how direct in its story of a new marriage off to a shaky start. The French
director Francois Truffaut fell in love with it one Saturday afternoon in 1946,
when he was 14: "When I entered the theater, I didn't even know who Jean
Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his
work." Hearing a critic attack another movie because "it smells like
dirty feet," Truffaut considered that a compliment, and thought of Vigo
and the pungent life he evoked on a French canal barge.
saw Vigo's life work that afternoon in Paris; it added up to less than 200
minutes. Legends swirled around the director, who died of tuberculosis at 29,
just a few months after the premiere. Already famous for "Zero for
Conduct" (1933), he was so ill when he made "L'Atalante" during
an unusually cold winter that sometimes he directed from a stretcher: "It
is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,"
Truffaut wrote, and when a friend advised him to guard his health, Vigo replied
that "he lacked the time and had to give everything right away."
film premiered to polite responses in Paris and at the Venice Film Festival;
London critics were its first great champions. It was seen for years in a
butchered version, chopped down from 89 to 65 minutes, and only in 1990 was it
restored. That version is now available on video.
outline, "L'Atalante" seems a simple story. It begins with the
marriage of a young barge captain named Jean and a village girl named Juliette
"who always had to do things differently." There is no wedding feast.
Still wearing her wedding dress, she holds to a boom and swings on board the
barge, to begin life not only with her husband but also with his massive and
shambling friend Jules, a sailor who has been to Yokohama and Singapore, but
now plies the waterways between Le Havre and Paris. The barge is further
crowded by a cabin boy and at least six cats.
makes the best of her situation. When the cat has kittens in her bed, she
strips the sheets over the objections of Jules, who sees no need for such
fastidiousness. One night on the radio she hears the magic words, "This is
Paris!" She has never been to Paris, or anywhere else. When the barge
arrives in the city, Jean tells her to get dressed up for a night on the
town--but Jules slips off in search of fleshy pleasures, and they must stay
with the boat. Eventually she slips off alone to the city, planning to be back
before she is missed. Jean finds her gone and angrily resumes the journey. The
barge is missing when she returns. . . .
details fail to evoke the enchanted quality of "L'Atalante," which is
not about what lovers do, but about how they feel--how tender they are, how
sensitive and foolish. The film is shot in a poetic way that sees them as the
figures in a myth; Atalante is not only the barge name but the name of a Greek
goddess who, says Brewer's Dictionary, "being very swift of foot, refused
to marry unless the suitor should first defeat her in a race." Can it be
that Jean and Juliette were racing away from one another, and he did a better
job of it?
movie's effect comes through the way it evokes specific moments in the life of
the young couple, rather than tying them to a plot. They will be the moments
that memory illuminates 50 years from now, when everything else has grown
vague. Consider their first morning, as the waking couple is serenaded by an
accordion and a bargeman's song. The argument over the laundry. An
extraordinary moment when old Jules and Juliette are alone in the cabin, and he
seems almost ready to assault her, but she distracts him with the dress she is
making, and gets him to model it. And how her unexpected cheerfulness (did she
even sense any danger?) inspires him to show her the treasures of his life,
climaxing with a jar that contains the hands of his best friend ("all that
is left of him").
is a sequence in a canalside bistro where a magician flirts with her, tempts
her with pretty scarves, dances with her and enrages Jules. The man paints word
pictures of Paris that echo in her imagination until shemustgo see the city for herself--not
to be disloyal to Jean, but because she is like a little girl who cannot help
separation is so painful for them both. Her early joy turns into fear; her
purse is stolen, hawk-faced men make lewd suggestions, the city is no longer
magical. Jean holds his head in anguish. And then Vigo releases all the pent-up
loneliness with a bold gesture. Earlier, Juliette told Jean that when she put
her face into water and opened her eyes, she could see her true love: "I
saw you before I met you." Now in desperation Jean plunges into the icy
canal, and Juliette's smiling presence swims up before him. "This must
count as one of the most dazzling images of a loving woman in the history of
the cinema," wrote the novelist Marina Warner.
Jean climbs back on board, the old man and the cabin boy try to cheer him with
music, but he wanders off and, in a heartbreaking shot, embraces a block of ice
as if it is his love.
is played by Dita Parlo, a legendary Berlin-born actress who made 22 films
between 1928 and 1939, and one more in 1965. Her other famous role was as the
farm woman who takes in the escaped convicts in Renoir's "Grand
Illusion" (1937). Madonna's bookSexwas inspired, she said, by Parlo
in "L'Atalante." Garboesque in the pale refinement of her face, she
seems too elegant to be an untraveled country girl, but that quality works when
it is set beside Michel Simon's crusty old Jules.
not yet 40 when the film was made, looks 60, weathered by salt air and pickled
in seaport saloons. Inspired by the sight of the two young lovers kissing, he
has his best moment when he demonstrates how he can wrestle, too--and grapples
with himself on the deck, while Vigo dissolves between exposures to make him
into two lonely ghosts fighting for possession of the same body.
Daste, who plays Jean, conveys the helplessness of a young man who knows he is
in love but knows nothing about the practical side of a relationship--how he
must see Juliette's needs and intuit what wounds her. Although the film ends
with everyone joyously back on board, we doubt, somehow, that we have seen
their last fight.
movie's look is softly poetic. Vigo and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, who
years later labored for Preminger in Hollywood, shot mostly on location,
capturing the cold winter canal landscapes, the smoky bistros, the cramped
living quarters, the magnificence of the muscular old barge as water pours into
locks to lift it up to Paris. This is the kind of movie you return to like a
favorite song, remembering where you were and how it made you feel, and how its