(Jean Vigo, France, 1934)


As heretical as it is to say in these enlightened times of gender politics, Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante is the cinema’s greatest ode to heterosexual passion. One simply cannot enter into the rapturous poetry of the film without surrendering to its romantic series of oppositions between the sexes, comparisons that are rigorously installed at every possible level – spiritual, physical, erotic, and emotional. It is only this thrill of absolute ‘otherness’ which can allow both the agony of non-alignment between lovers, and then the sublimity of their eventual fusion.

How far removed this is from the typical filmic romance of time in which, as Vigo once memorably complained, it takes "two pairs of lips three thousand metres of film to come together and almost as many to come unstuck again". Like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), L’Atalante casts the immortal story of love within the mythical archetypes of the adventure tale: man (Jean Dasté as Jean) the seafaring adventurer, woman (Dita Parlo as Juliette) the city-craving settler. The seductive temptations and drifts that will temporarily split them up are forecast in a charged moment of almost metaphysical agony: in a fog, Jean stumbles blindly over the boat’s barge until he finds his bride and envelops her in an embrace at once angry and relieved, inspiring them instantly to head below deck to make love.

Between the divine poles of man and woman, however, there is Père Jules (Michel Simon), master of the boat. It is surely the mark of Vigo’s greatness as an artist that his imagination could project itself fully into both the heterosexual ideal and the resolutely fluid identity of this uniquely inspired madman. Jules is a multiple being, man and woman, child and adult, friend and lover, without boundaries, at one point even visually doubled as he wrestles himself. He is a living text covered with extravagant tattoos; he is the cinematic apparatus itself, able to produce sound from records with his magically electrified finger. Jules is Vigo’s surrealist sensibility incarnated by Simon, an astonishingly anarchic, instinctual performer.

Vigo develops and deepens the formal explorations of his previous Zero for Conduct. From silent, burlesque cinema and Rene Clair he borrows a parade gag for his prologue: stuff-shirts at the couple’s funeral filing past the camera, gradually becoming faster until they are an unruly, dishevelled mob. Aboard the boat, Vigo finds his beloved ‘aquarium spaces’: enclosed rooms, often shot from above, filled to the brim with cats, oddities and wonders, as in Jules’ cabin devoted to exotic bric-a-brac. On deck, he uses ghostly, nocturnal lighting. Unifying the entire film is a superb rhythmic and expressive tone, at times bringing the film close to becoming a musical.

Vigo’s death at the age of 29 was a tragic loss. But L’Atalante crowns his legacy – and is there any scene in cinema sexier than the magnificent, Eisensteinian montage of Jean’s and Juliette’s bodies, far apart, matched in postures of mutual near-masturbation, an act of love made possible only through the soulful language of film?

MORE Vigo: Zero for Conduct

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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