Thoughts On: L’Atalante (1934)
Newly wed to a boat skipper, a small-town girl travels down the river Seine with his small crew.
Seen from a distance and without context, L’Atalante is a simple film that poignantly explores young love. It has flawed technical attributes in regard to sound design and the edit, but is nonetheless captivating and impressive. However, when we begin to consider the films from the early talkie period of the 30s, we can begin to see why this film is often regarded as one of the greatest pictures ever made.
Awash with Hollywood classics such as Frankenstein, Scarface, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Ninotchka, Bringing Up Baby, Swing Time, King Kong, The Invisible Man and Duck Soup, the 30s are overflowing with timeless stories from all genres. And this is what helped established Hollywood’s Golden Age; there was a rich period of fantastical storytelling that only grew in its capacity for wish-fulfilment and spectacle as we moved into the 40s and 50s. A significant aspect of this growth was of course the studio system which, in certain senses, transformed Hollywood into a vast manufacturing factory. And as the metaphor suggests, the productions of the studio system where subject to standards – formal, aesthetic and story-wise – which leaves the 30s as a time in which films weren’t very distinct from one another. In short, there was no Kubrick, no Scorsese, no Wes Anderson, no unique auteur which hugely differentiated themselves from main stream in a lasting manner.
This lack of style and individuality in 30s filmmaking was challenged only by a few – and Vigo was one of these. Often, regarded in the same capacity as Dreyer and Renoir, Vigo developed a unique style that shattered standards of continuity, mise en scene and structure; a style which is most evident in his one and only feature, L’Atalante. With a powerful use of leading lines and negative space, Vigo constructed this film with Boris Kaufman in spite of many restrictions and troubles. In such, a large reason why there is such a powerful use of the voidal sky and water throughout this film was because of weather; Vigo couldn’t shoot the ground because it started to snow in later parts of production. This leaves Vigo’s style to be one defined by realism as, despite shooting some interior scenes within a studio, he endeavoured to capture the real world in an unspectacular fashion – just as he had in his previous shorts (À Propos De Nice in particular). Vigo even shot certain sequences in a documentary-esque fashion in the tail end of production when he was running out of money and under pressure from the studio.
And on the note of restrictions and troubles, Vigo ran into a lot of difficulty getting this film made – but even more in post production. He initially wanted to work on an original story, but, considering his lack of previous successes and abundance of controversy, his producer give him a banal script that somewhat resembled L’Atalante. After re-writing and shooting the script with monetary pressures, Vigo’s initial cuts where disregarded by the studio and chopped down due to unsatisfied distributors at Gaumont. Over the years, L’Atalante has in fact been through numerous re-edits – up until as recently as 2001.
The reason for the initial studio interference comes down to Vigo’s health; he simply wasn’t able to fight for his film. A detail that we haven’t mentioned so far in our look at the films of Vigo is that he had tuberculosis – in all probability, because of his impoverished life. Throughout his work on his films, especially L’Atalant which was shot over many months and often outside in the winter, Vigo had health issues. After a rough cut had been constructed he had to take a break due to a fever he had developed, and so took a holiday then returned to Paris with his family. It’s here however, where he remained bedridden, unable to work on a final cut of his film, until he died later in the year.
It is often speculated that, as much as Vigo’s father influenced him and his career, so did his struggle with tuberculosis. When we look back to his exploration of poverty and the upper classes in À Propos De Nice, it’s evident that Vigo is making a film that seemingly comes from every facet of his life with strands of anarchy, socialist/Marxist critique and with sympathy for the average person. And this same flow of creativity exists in L’Atalante; we see this through the depiction of the cats and the terrible living conditions of our characters, knowing that Vigo was far from wealthy and that his father often had many stray cats in their home when he was a boy. Again, we could make a comparison to Chaplin, but it’s also very clear that Vigo’s style and the uniqueness of this film comes directly from the pressure of all kinds that he faced.
So, with Vigo’s backstory at hand, the simple romance captured by L’Atalante elevates it into a much more poignant and genuine piece of work. In such, Vigo had evolved over his short career, transitioning from an outspoken and highly critical montage to a poetic-realist romance that is essentially about loyalty and trust, themes developed from a purely mundane and unspectacular perspective.
This is seemingly what defines Vigo as one of the most significant figures of the early talkie period. He swam against the tide with unspectacular films and an unspectacular career that were nonetheless unique, innovative and true of his character. This is exactly what we saw reprised and capitalised on during the French New Wave with Vigo and his films being an incredible influence of the auteurs of the time. It was then the likes of Godard, Varda and Truffaut that continued on Vigo’s play with form, editing, continuity and camera work; his approach to social critique and his application of realism that stemmed from his own life and personality. So, as much as we have to appreciate the New Wave films of the late 50s and 60s, in turn, its influence on New Hollywood and beyond, we also have to consider Vigo, an auteur developing a shade of modern cinema a quarter of a decade beforehand.
This Series Is Dedicated To
Zéro De Conduite – Timeless Frustration
Mother Of George – Simple Stories vs. Boring Stories
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