Though there are plenty of examples in the world of music and literature, movies don’t have a ton of singular artists who died too young to ever live up to their full potential. However, one of the early examples of this is French director Jean Vigo, who died before the age of 30 and only has one feature film to his name. L’Atalante is a film that has been said to have had a major impact on the directors of the French New Wave a few decades later, though I think the strangest thing about it is that despite being the film synonymous with its director, it doesn’t seem like it entirely embodies the themes and ideals that Vigo was interested in exploring.
Namely, it doesn’t really showcase the fact that Vigo was an unabashed anarchist. In fact, Vigo was so much of an anarchist that his 1933 short film Zero For Conduct was banned in France shortly after its release, due to its anti-authoritarian nature. For his next movie, Vigo was planning a film about noted French anarchist Eugène Dieudonné, but after the controversial release of Zero For Conduct, he instead decided to make something with a little more commercial appeal. Since apparently “barge culture” was really popular in 1930s France, he settled on a scenario about a newly wedded couple and their misadventures aboard a barge which was originally developed by writer Jean Guinée.
All of that said, L’Atalante doesn’t feature anything terribly commercial in it, since it has hardly any plot, as it’s mostly a series of quandaries and encounters with odd characters. It begins with the marriage of Jean, a young ship captain (played by Jean Dasté) and his bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) walking through town on their way to a honeymoon on the ship that Jean works on. However, any romance between the two that could possibly be consummated is often interrupted by the surly first mate Père Jules (played by character actor Michel Simon), his cabin boy, and his many many cats. The film then sees this ragtag group sailing from town-to-town (which features a short, disappointing trip to Paris) as Jean and Juliette’s freshly minted marriage becomes increasingly rocky.
In that plot description, you do see the one element of Vigo’s anti-capitalist ideology that made its way into the plot — the fact that even on his honeymoon, this working-class sailor still has to work. Otherwise, I think the main thing that has made this movie so enchanting to French cinephiles over the years is its level of realism, which I can’t imagine was easy to find in a film so early on in the sound era. Much of the movie consists of these three characters hanging out on a boat, occasionally getting on each other’s nerves, sometimes becoming fascinated with each other, and always exhibiting personal flaws as well as virtues.
Yet despite the inherent realism in the film, there’s also a dreamlike touch of whimsy that permeates L’Atalante as well. There are recurring images of fog and water that are intoxicating without being overstylized, while the movie’s most arresting scene sees Jean diving underwater in order to find validation that Jean is his one true love by seeing her image in the water (it makes a lot more sense in context). It’s the type of scene that typifies why Vigo was dubbed a visual poet among his admirers, and also shows the ability of film even at this early stage to both reflect real life while also inhabiting a more intangible, idealized version of real life.
Even though I would say this is a very enjoyable and sneakily romantic film, I think it is a little hard to comprehend how influential L’Atalante must have been after it was rediscovered in the 1940s. This is because the tone of this movie is exactly the tone that I equate with French cinema, or at least the kind of French cinema that typically makes its way over to arthouse theaters and distributors like Criterion or Janus Films. It’s playful, experimental, sexy, and in search of some sort of existential truth, but without being overbearing about it. So it’s no wonder that it has influenced everyone from François Truffaut to Michel Gondry.
While I mentioned that it’s a shame that Jean Vigo didn’t get to make any films after this one, it’s hard to say whether he actually would’ve gotten the financing to make more films after L’Atalante. Vigo lived just long enough to see that L’Atalante was another commercial failure in his then-young career, and died about a month after the film’s lukewarm release. However, even if he would have struggled to make subsequent films, I’m sure they would have been interesting, and who knows, maybe the directors that would go on to champion L’Atalante later on would’ve facilitated him making more films in the 50s and 60s. But alas, we’ll never know.