Jean Vigo: Artist of the floating world
by Graham Fuller
Sight and Sound
Jean Vigo’s great work about a pair of troubled newly-weds and the crusty old mate with the Hapsburg jaw and unfettered imagination who travels with them aboard the Normandy freight barge L’Atalante was based on a one-page scenario by Jean Guinée. This was the pen name of Roger de Guichen, who had been intrigued by the sight of a woman helming a barge on the Seine, and had named his fictional vessel after a frigate commanded by one of his ancestors in the Seven Years War. Following the banning of Vigo’s Zéro de conduite in 1933, the director’s supportive producer Jacques-Louis Nounez sent him Guinée’s scenario hoping it would deter him from the kind of radical experimentation that had illuminated Vigo’s scabrous 42-minute satire of boarding-school life.
“What the fuck do you want me to do with this? It’s Sunday-school stuff,” was Vigo’s response when he read the scenario. It was workaday melodrama. Juliette, the young wife, bored with the monotony and domestic drudgery of her life on the barge after the initial erotic charge of her marriage has dwindled, runs away from her conservative husband Jean, the skipper, for an afternoon of window-shopping in Paris, only to find herself stranded when he angrily takes off in the barge. Her handbag is stolen, she’s propositioned, she fears for her survival. The husband languishes, despite the kindly attempts of the mate, le père Jules, to rouse him. In Guinée’s scenario, Juliette is found by the old salt in a church. Penitent, she returns to Jean, confirming she is faithful. But Guinée pessimistically concluded in his synopsis, “Happiness has fled the vessel.”
Despite his reservations, Vigo sensed he could tell the story imaginatively. Nounez struck a deal whereby he would cover the running costs while Gaumont provided studio space, cameras and distribution. Vigo and his co-writer Albert Riéra would eliminate Guinée’s moralising, take advantage of the on-shore plight of Juliette (Dita Parlo) to show the inroads of the Depression and expose the spite of the petit bourgeois mob and the brutality of the police – and use music and magic to bring her home to Jean (Jean Dasté). The genie-like le père Jules (Michel Simon), who discovers her working in a palais de chansons instead of telling her rosary in a church, carries her out on his shoulder, as if she were one of the many cats that cling to him on the barge.
In October 1933, just before shooting, Vigo told a Belgian journalist that he was using Guinée’s scenario “merely as a loose frame allowing me to work with images of the waterways, the environment of the canal-workers, and the actors”. He was as good as his word. The connecting thread of L’Atalante is the realist footage depicting the harsh, unremitting lives of the crew and the waterfront folk as the barge heads to Paris and, minus Juliette, on to Le Havre. Contrasting with the voyage sequences, however, are exquisitely sensual flights into surrealism. Jean, believing an old wives’ tale told him by Juliette in the first days of their marriage, dives into the icy river to seek a glimpse of her underwater, whereupon she is magically superimposed over him in her wedding dress as he swims. (Vigo drew on his 1931 short about a swimming champion, Taris ou la Natation.) Then Jean and Juliette, though miles apart, ‘make love’ by dreaming erotically of each other in parallel scenes, their bodies impressionistically speckled in unifying dots of shadow.
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