The subject of L'Atalante – Vigo's only feature-length film, completed just before his death – was not of his own choosing. The interest of the film lies in his engagement with material that was partly congenial in its unconventionality (life on a barge, with its freedom from the restrictions of established society, its alternative community of unsocialized eccentrics), and partly highly conventional (problems of the heterosexual couple, mutual adjustment to marriage, break-up and reunion). The subject enabled him to develop the affectionate examination of anarchic behaviour already expressed in Zéro de conduite, but within the confines of an archetypal classical narrative of order (equated with marriage)/disruption of order/restoration of order.
Crucial to Vigo's personal background was his allegiance to his anarchist father, who died in prison under mysterious circumstances, and about whom Vigo wanted to make a film; crucial to his aesthetic background was the Surrealist movement. He wrote an adulatory review of Un Chien anadalou and, while not Surrealist in the strict sense, his films are faithful to the spirit of Surrealism, with its commitment to Freudian theories of dream and the unconscious and to the overthrow of repressive bourgeois social and moral codes. L'Atalante opens with a wedding procession, which Vigo presents as if it were a funeral: everyone is in black, everyone looks glum, almost everyone is coupled. The only brief outburst of spontaneous energy comes from the one single man, who tries to pinch the behind of the woman in front of him and is sternly reprimanded. This is Vigo's succinct depiction of established society. Against it, in the same sequence, he sets the characters from the barge: "le père Jules," whose relationship to mainstream culture and its rituals is summed up in his quick dash back into the church to splash himself with holy water and pronounce the couple man and wife; and the (nameless) boy who, having knocked the wedding bouquet into the canal, runs off to find a substitute and returns bearing great festoons of wild creeper, looking like a juvenile pagan nature god.
The culmination of the first half of the film is the marvellous scene in which Jules shows Juliette the treasures of his cabin (a veritable Surrealist world of unexpected juxtapositions). It ends with the brutal intervention of Jean, his smashing of Jules's collection of momentoes, and his striking of Juliette. He is re-establishing conjugal possession, and we register his behaviour as thoroughly negative. The nature of the threat Jean feels is extremely complex, not at all the simple one of erotic rivalry; and to understand it, we must consider the character of Jules and what he represents. Presented without ambiguity as an admirably robust and healthy figure, Jules transgresses, directly or by implication, every major bourgeois rule. (1) Money-value: his souvenirs are treasured solely for the associations they evoke, not for monetary worth. (2) Cleanliness: his physical robustness is unaffected by his living among cats which produce litters in the beds, and by his total lack of interest in bourgeois standards of hygiene. (3) Physical squeamishness: to demonstrate the efficiency of a native knife, he casually slices open his own hand. (4) Patriarchal dominance: he relates to Juliette as an equal, reducing the notion of male authority to a game (the tattered puppet of an orchestral conductor). (5) Death: he keeps the fore-arms of his best friend pickled in a jar, treating the souvenir without the least morbidity, but simply as a momento to live with. (6) Monogamy: he shows Juliette a photograph of himself with two women, telling her, "There's a story to that." We never get to hear it, but it is clear that Jules is unattached yet strongly sexual. (Neither does he exploit women: witness the later scene with the fortune-teller, where the seduction is delightfully mutual). (7) Sexual identity: the dead friend was the person he was closest to, and although bisexuality is not necessarily implied, it is perfectly in keeping with the freedom from bourgeois conditioning Jules represents. (8) Property: Jules shows great affection for his souvenirs, but is not in the least bound to them. After Jean wrecks his cabin he casually picks up an unbroken piece of bric-à-brac, remarks, "there's one he missed," and smashes it. What Juliette is attracted to, and what her husband experiences as a threat, is precisely Jules's freedom – a freedom that can easily encompass loyalty, affection and loving relationship, but that quite precludes the exclusivity of marriage. Further, through Jean's behavior, the film clearly establishes marriage as characterized by the man's possession of, and assumption of absolute right over, the woman.
It is scarcely suprising that a film made within the capitalist production/distribution system for a bourgeois audience could not pursue further the implications of its own liberating perceptions. In fact, its second half is largely devoted to a retraction of those implications. Two related strategies are involved: the substitution of the peddler for "le père Jules," and the partial transformation of Jules's function. The bistro sequence with the peddler is clearly a repetition of/variation on the cabin scene. Juliette is attracted to the promise of freedom, the display of wonders, and Jean intervenes to reclaim her. But the peddler is not Jules: he is a slight figure, explicitly described as the "peddler of dreams," and the freedom and glamour with which he tempts Juliette are quite illusory. Jean is proved right in rejecting him. If Jules poses a substantial and formidable threat to the institution of marriage, the peddler only seems to, and the film can deal with him easily. Finally, Jules becomes indeed "le père" Jules: the father-figure who retrieves the fugitive Juliette, slings her over his shoulder, restores her to her husband, and pulls shut the hatch over them. The film is quite explicit about Juliette's imprisonment, but the narrative resolution demands that she be shown to accept it gladly. The famous last shot – the phallic symbol of the barge pushing on through the sunlit canal – represents a celebration of sexuality about which we cannot help, today, feeling deeply uneasy.
Release Date: 1934
Starring: Jean Dasté, Dita Parlo, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefèvre, Raya Diligent, and Maurice Gilles
Director: Jean Vigo
Writers: Jean Vigo and Blaise Cendrars
Source Citation: Wood, Robin. "L'Atalante." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 84-86.