|Directed by||Jean Vigo|
|Produced by||Jacques-Louis Nounez|
|Written by||Jean Vigo
|Based on||an original scenario by Jean Guinée|
|Music by||Maurice Jaubert|
|Editing by||Louis Chavance|
|Distributed by||Gaumont Film Company|
|Release dates||Preview: 25 April 1934
Initial release: 12 September 1934
|Running time||89 min.
65 min. (original French release)
L'Atalante (also released as Le Chaland qui passe) is a 1934 French film written and directed by Jean Vigo and starring Michel Simon, Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté. In the film Dasté plays a captain who honeymoons with his new wife, Parlo, on a canal barge with the ship's first mate Père Jules (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre). The newlyweds struggle until Parlo leaves the boat to explore the sights of Paris, leading Dasté to abandon her until she is found by Père Jules and they are reunited.
After the difficult release of his controversial short film Zero for Conduct, Vigo initially wanted to make a film about Eugène Dieudonné, whom Vigo's father (famous anarchist Miguel Almereyda) had been associated with in 1913. After Vigo and his producer Jacques-Louis Nounez struggled to find the right project for a feature film, Nounez finally gave Vigo an unproduced scenario by Jean Guinée about barge dwellers. Vigo re-wrote the story with Albert Riéra and Nounez secured a distribution deal with the Gaumont Film Company with a budget of ₣1 million. Vigo used many of the technicians and actors from Zero for Conduct, such as cinematographer Boris Kaufman and actor Jean Dasté. He also worked with such established film stars as Michel Simon and Dita Parlo.
Jean (Jean Dasté), captain of the canal barge L'Atalante, marries Juliette (Dita Parlo) in her village. The opening sequence — the newlyweds' march from the church to Jean's boat — is filmed in a discontinuous style that anticipates the films of the French New Wave.
The couple travel to Paris to deliver cargo, enjoying a makeshift honeymoon en route. Jean's two crewmen, Père Jules (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy, are not used to the presence of a woman aboard. Jean flies into a jealous rage, smashing plates and sending Jules' cats scattering every which way, when he discovers Juliette and Jules talking in the latter's quarters.
Arriving in Paris, Jean promises Juliette a night out, but Jules goes to see a fortune teller, taking the cabin boy with him. Jean cannot leave the barge unattended, disappointing Juliette.
Later, however, Jean takes his wife to a dance hall. There they meet a street peddler who flirts with Juliette, dances with her, and asks her to run off with him. This leads to a scuffle with Jean, after which the boatman drags his wife back to the barge. When Juliette sneaks away to see the sights, a furious Jean casts off, leaving her behind.
Unaware of this, Juliette enjoys window shopping. When she finds the barge gone, she tries to buy a train ticket home, but her purse is stolen. She finds work and a place to sleep.
Meanwhile, Jean comes to regret his decision, slipping into depression. He is summoned by his company's manager, but Jules manages to keep him from losing his job. To the surprise of his crew, Jean first dunks his head in a bucket of water, then jumps into the river, recalling a folk tale Juliette had told him: that one can see the face of one's true love in the water. Jules sets out to find Juliette. He returns her to her husband, and the couple happily embrace.
- Michel Simon as Père Jules
- Dita Parlo as Juliette
- Jean Dasté as Jean
- Gilles Margaritis as Le camelot (the peddler)
- Louis Lefebvre as Le gosse (the cabin boy)
- Maurice Gilles as Le chef de bureau (the manager of the waterways company)
- Raphaël Diligent as Raspoutine, a scrap dealer who sells Jules trinkets
- René Bleck as Le garçon d'honneur (Jean's best man, uncredited)
- Fanny Clar as La mère de Juliette (Juliette's mother, uncredited)
- Charles Goldblatt as Le voleur (the thief, uncredited)
- Glen Paul as L'invité qui boite (a wedding guest with a limp, uncredited)
- Jacques Prévert as an extra
- Pierre Prévert as an extra
- Loutchimoukov as an extra
Background and writing
While finishing work on Zero for Conduct, producer Jacques-Louis Nounez was interested in working with Vigo on a feature and Vigo suggested a prison film about French anarchist Eugène Dieudonné, whom Vigo's father Miguel Almereyda had defended in a newspaper article in 1913. Vigo began working on the film with Dieudonné, who had agreed to play himself, and Julot Dupont, an expert on French prisons. After Zero for Conduct was banned in France for its controversial depiction of the French education system, Nounez was worried that such a film could not be distributed. Other ideas for films considered by Nounez and Vigo include an adaptation of Georges de La Fouchardière’s ‘’L'Affaire Peau-de-Balle’’ and a script Vigo had written about the relationship between a bourgeois father and his more progressive son. In July 1933 Nounez finally gave Vigo a scenario about "barge dwellers" called L'Atalante, written by Jean Guinée. Vigo initially disliked the scenario, but agreed to make the film and began making suggestions to the story.In the early 1930s, films and music about "barge dwellers" were popular in France and had inspired such pop songs as Chanson de halage and Le chaland qui passe.
Nounez produced the film for ₣1 million and made a deal with the Gaumont Film Company to provide studio sets and distribute the film. Vigo hired his frequent collaborators: cinematographer Boris Kaufman and composer Maurice Jaubert, as well as art director Francis Jourdain, who was an old friend of his father. Boris Kaufman, the brother of Soviet film maker Dziga Vertov, described his years working with Vigo as "cinematic paradise." Vigo also hired established film editor Louis Chavance after having found it difficult to edit Zero for Conduct himself. Chavance had attended the premiere of Zero for Conduct and had been one of its early supporters and quickly became friends with Vigo. Vigo and Albert Riéra had quickly written a shooting script and scouted locations at docks during the summer of 1933. They also found and leased a barge to be used for the film, the ‘’Louise XVI’’.
Vigo also worked with two established movie stars for the first time, both of whom were hired by Gaumont but approved of by Vigo. Michel Simon had been a leading actor since appearing in the title role of Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning. Simon stated that he accepted the role for the little-known and already controversial Vigo because he sympathized with Vigo and wanted to help his troubled career. Dita Parlo was a minor star who had just returned to France after six years in Germany. Jean Dasté had only appeared in Zero for Conduct and Boudu Saved from Drowning before his leading role, but went on to have a long career in France. Louis Lefèbvre had previously appeared in Zero for Conduct. Vigo was familiar with Lefèbvre's lack of acting training and awkwardness on camera and worked those characteristics into the character in order to make Lefèbvre's performance work.
Although scheduled to begin shooting during the summer, production did not begin until mid-November 1933. L'Atalante took four months to shoot, partially in a replica of the interior of the barge in a Gaumont studio, and partially on location. During filming, Vigo would often act out the scenes himself for the actors and insisted that they re-shoot scenes until they were perfect.
Amongst the changes that Vigo made to the original scenario was replacing Père Jules’ pet dog with over ten alley cats supplied by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Vigo’s father had been fond of such cats and Vigo’s childhood homes were often overrun with stray cats. During the scenes where Père Jules plays his phonograph, these cats would become immediately fascinated by the phonograph and surround it whenever it played music. Vigo quickly assembled his crew and shot footage of the cats listening to the music and sleeping inside the loud speaker. Simon later adopted the kitten that rested inside the phonograph horn. Vigo also visited local flea markets in Saint-Ouen and the scrap metal market on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir to find props for Père Jules’ collection of artifacts from around the world.
Production began with the exteriors on location and was shot mostly in sequence. The first scene shot was the wedding sequence at Maurecourt in the Oise. The exteriors of the dance hall sequence where Juliette first meets the showman were shot at the Charentonneau dance hall in Maisons-Alfort, while the interiors were shot on an elaborate set at Gaumont studios. The character of the showman was not very developed in the shooting script and Vigo relied on improvisation on set to create a more interesting character. Because Gaumont had insisted that music be included in the film the showman sings "The Pedlar's Complaint", a French folk song written by Vigo, Goldblatt and Jaubert that makes fun of the genre of music that they were unwillingly required to include in the film. Vigo had previously experienced bad sound quality when shooting Zero for Conduct and was concerned about a similar problem on L'Atalante despite having better equipment. Since Michel Simon had both the most dialogue in the film and a distinctly inarticulate manner of speech, Vigo had Simon adopt the character tic of often repeating questions that were asked of his character.
The first two weeks of location shooting began in the Oise between the Marne and the Rhine and down the Ourcq canal to the harbor in La Villette. The harsh and early winter weather slowed down the shooting schedule and affected Vigo's health. Despite the cold weather, Vigo began to want to shoot at night more and more so as to use the artificial lights of the barge and houses along the canal. Another reason was that Vigo needed to maintain continuity, and the cold weather was creating floating ice in the canal. In the middle of location shooting, Vigo moved the cast and crew to the replica set of the barge at Gaumont studios at La Villette, but would quickly change the day's shooting to on location whenever the weather permitted. Vigo left all transition shots to the very end of shooting, which became a major problem due to the ground then being covered with snow. Vigo shot many low angle shots that only showed the sky in the background to ameliorate this problem.
By mid-January, the film was behind schedule and over budget, with several major sequences having not yet been shot. Gaumont executives blamed Vigo and pressured him to finish the film quickly and inexpensively. Vigo sometimes filmed documentary-style footage, such as the scene where Juliette walks past a line of real unemployed workers. Despite not having sufficient funding from Gaumont to pay extras or for locations, he was able to film the scene where Juliette is robbed at the Gara d'Austerlitz in the middle of the night with a few friends appearing as background extras. Chavance was also able to recruit members of the "October Group" such as Jacques Prevert, Pierre Prevert and Loutchimoukov, to appear in the film.
On location, shooting conditions were often cold and wet, causing Vigo to become ill and develop a fever. He was already suffering from tuberculosis and was bedridden for portions of the filming. Vigo refused to take a break and would often find the energy to fight with executives at Gaumont over the film. He worked until the film was almost complete and a rough cut had been made.
At the end of four months of continuous shooting, in early February 1934, Vigo took a vacation in Villard-de-Lans with family and friends to try to regain his health. He intended to finish the final cut of the film, but his condition became worse and he returned to Paris to recover. The few remaining aerial shots were done by Boris Kaufman, while editor Louis Chavance finished the final cut without Vigo. Vigo's health did not improve and he was confined to bed for the remainder of his life. Dasté later claimed that Vigo "made jokes all the time. Spending a day with him was wonderful and grueling, even a few weeks before his death. He was such a vivacious person."
Initial release and reception
The film was previewed to French film distributors on 25 April 1934 at the Palais Rochechouart. The screening was disastrous and Gaumont took control of the film. Jean Pascal called the original cut "a confused, incoherent, willfully absurd, long, dull, commercially worthless film." However Élie Faure said that he was reminded of the painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and praised "these landscapes of water, trees, little houses on peaceful banks and boats slowly threading their way ahead of a silver wake: the same impeccable composition, the same power invisibly present because so much a master of itself, the same balance of all the elements of a visual drama in the tender embrace of complete acceptance, the same pearly, golden veil translucently masking the sharpness of composition and the firmness of line. And perhaps it was the simplicity of composition, entirely devoid of flourishes or decoration — classical, in a word — that made me appreciate all the more pleasure of savoring the very spirit of Vigo's work, almost violent, certainly tormented, feverish, brimming with ideas and truculent fantasy, with virulent, even demonic and yet constantly human romanticism."
Eventually, Gaumont cut the film's running time to 65 minutes in an attempt to make it more popular and changed the title to Le chaland qui passe ("The Passing Barge"), the name of a popular song from the time by Lys Gauty, which was also inserted into the film, replacing parts of Jaubert's score. Vigo was too weak to defend the film as his condition grew worse. When L'Atalante was released in September 1934, it was a commercial failure and received poor reviews from critics, who called it "amateurish, self-indulgent and morbid."
In October 1934, shortly after the film had finished its initial run at French movie theaters, Vigo died at the age of 29 in the arms of his wife Lydou. Allegedly, he died just as a street performer began playing "Le chaland qui passe" below his window.
Rediscovery and legacy
L'Atalante and all of Vigo's work was mostly forgotten by the late 1930s, despite L'Atalante being partially restored in 1940. Vigo's work began to be rediscovered after World War II. L'Atalante and Zéro for conduct were both re-released in New York in July 1947 and received rave reviews from film critics such as James Agee, who called Vigo, "one of the very few real originals who have ever worked in film." In the UK, Roger Manvell called Vigo "perhaps the most original and promising of the great French directors." In Italy, Luigi Comencini obtained a personal copy of L'Atalante and would screen it for his friends, calling it "a masterpiece capable of shaking up any notion about cinema the average spectator might have." Film critic Georges Sadoul praised "the astounding quality of poetry it engenders from a world superficially ordinary and drab."
The film became a favorite of the filmmakers of the French New Wave, whose films contain many allusions to Vigo's work. The French director François Truffaut fell in love with it when he saw it at age 14 in 1946: "When I entered the theater, I didn't even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his work."  Yugoslavian film director Emir Kusturica has said he is a big admirer of Vigo's work and describes Vigo as a poet. This admiration is best shown in Kusturica's Underground, where the underwater scenes are very reminiscent of those from L'Atalante. Other films to pay tribute to L'Atalante include Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love.
The film was restored to 89 minutes in 1990 thanks to the fortunate retrieval of a copy featuring the whole footage in the archives of the RAI, the Italian State broadcasting company, where it had been languishing for decades. As a result the now-whole movie was released on videotape. The entire film was restored in a version released on DVD in 2001. In August 2011, Criterion released a new restoration on DVD and Blu-ray. L'Atalante was chosen as the 10th-greatest film of all time in the British journal Sight & Sound's 1962 poll, and as the 6th-best in its 1992 poll. In the 2002 poll, it ranked 17th, with 15 critics and directors (including Jim Jarmusch) naming it as one of their 10 favorite films.
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