In 1932, Jean Renoir took the raw, anarchic potential of the Swiss-born actor Michel Simon and squeezed his flailing limbs into the film known as Boudu Saved From Drowning.
In 1932, Jean
Renoir took the raw, anarchic potential of the Swiss-born actor Michel Simon
and squeezed his flailing limbs into the film known as Boudu Saved From
Boudu, Simon posed a tangible threat to the status quo as he suggested that the
values of middle class refinement and civilisation might not be for everyone.
In 1934, Jean Vigo recruited Simon
to fill a similar role in his classic film L’Atalante.
However, while Simon reprises his turn as a deranged outsider, Vigo’s treatment
of the outsider is decidedly less defiant than Renoir’s. Indeed, L’Atalante is a film about the ultimate
rightness of the traditional family unit and the perils of allowing yourself to
be seduced by the bohemian championing of strangeness.
The film opens with a married couple marching from the
church to a canal barge. The groom Jean (Daste)
is the captain of the barge while his wife Juliette (Parlo) will live on the barge alongside her husband and his crew.
Part of L’Atalante’s charm lies in
its ability to capture modes of existence that simply no longer exist. Vigo’s
recreation of a traditional French working-class wedding ceremony is
beautifully observed and his images of a life lived on France’s industrial
canals is as nobly poetic as it is mildly spirit crushing. The sense of
claustrophobia that Vigo creates is genuinely palpable as, despite the barge
travelling the length and breadth of the country, we see little of the world
beyond the boat and its strange inhabitants.
The central tension driving the plot of L’Atalante is the one between
Juliette’s desire to be with her husband and her desire to see the wider world.
Juliette, we are told, has never seen the world outside of her village and so
she begins her married life utterly consumed by the world created by her
husband. These early scenes are astonishing, as they not only flawlessly
capture the egotism of young love; they also crackle with an erotic energy that
is vanishingly rare even in contemporary cinema. There is one scene where Jean
holds Juliette in his arms that must count as one of the most smoulderingly
sensuous screen kisses of all time. So intense is Jean and Juliette’s desire
for each other that one almost feels as though one is intruding by watching
Initially small, Juliette’s world expands
exponentially when L’Atalante’s
first mate Father Jean (Simon) shows him the cabinet of curiosities he
collected while travelling the world as a merchant sailor. Shocked that such
things could even exist, Juliette demands that Jean show her Paris but Jean’s
world is that of his ship and so the opportunity to see the lights passes them
by. Visibly upset, Juliette’s desire to escape is ignited by a theatrical
pedlar who captures her attention with exotic goods and talk of a life outside L’Atalante. Sick of her husband’s
closed-mindedness, Juliette runs off to see Paris on her own, prompting the
furious and jealous Jean to set off without her.
While the film ostensibly takes its name from Jean’s
ship, the ship’s name refers to the Greek mythical figure of Atalanta who
refused to marry until one of her suitors could beat her in a footrace. Like
many strong female mythological characters, Atalanta is something of a feminist
icon but Vigo presents Juliette’s escape in decidedly ambiguous terms. Indeed,
while Jean is clearly a stick-in-the-mud Vigo’s depiction of Juliette’s
travails in the outside world make it clear that he thinks that the best place
for her is with her husband. The only thing preventing the sexism fairy from
getting to this film is the fact that Jean effectively falls apart once he
realises what he has lost in Juliette. While the strength of Daste’s
performance and the affective power of Vigo’s depiction of Jean’s despair
prevent the film from ending on a sour note it is interesting to see that it is
Father Jules and not Jean who manages to track down and ‘save’ Juliette
suggesting (in accordance with the myth) that it may be the colourful Jules and
not the drably professional Jean who is Juliette’s true soul-mate.
Though the sexual politics of Vigo’s L’Atalante may date it, there is no
denying that this is still a beautifully made and powerful film. The grim
industrial reality of the film’s setting not only clashes wildly with
Juliette’s mythical aspirations; it also lends proletarian pathos to Jean and
Juliette’s love. Surrounded by smoke and industrial spew, the couple’s love
stands proud and defiant. Though less socially progressive than Renoir’s
deployment of Simon, L’Atalante nonetheless
possesses a peerless capacity for recreating the highs and low of love on the
edge of poverty.