Caroline Golum on L’Atalante
“There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.” —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Glances sly and adoring, flickering candlelight and strewn petals, the promise of undying happiness that only true love can provide: such are the fantasies of every young romantic, the rich loam from which a thousand lines of yearning paeans might bloom. If you’re lucky, the brief and blissful prologue of a “honeymoon phase” goes on forever, but even that inevitable dimming retains the sustenance of persistent affection. The concept of “companionate marriage” is still novel. To freely choose one’s lifelong partner is a recent freedom, a liberty that brings with it a new kind of propriety. Where the function of a status marriage was nakedly clear—an heir and a spare—the romantic union remains still uncharted territory.
The newfound excitement and precariousness at the heart of every newly minted union is poetically and economically depicted in Jean Vigo’s 1934 L’Atalante. His third film—after À propos de Nice and Zero de conduite—and sole feature was completed after his untimely death from tuberculosis. The tragedy of his too-short career adds a melancholy tint to his elegiac style, elevating what could have been a familiar love story into something wildly radical. For young people, the early death of a great artist holds a particular sway. L’Atalante most likely landed on my radar by way of a dollar-bin DVD—plucked by my roving eye like its heroine, Juliette, from the hinterlands of a video store or record shop. Despite a year and change of weekly L’Atalante home viewings, this tale of courtly love always took a backseat. I wasn’t uninterested in romance, and my heart was elsewhere: I prioritized absorbing Vigo’s talents through osmosis over pining for some teenager with a patchy beard.
It took a novel’s worth of unread texts, unacknowledged declarations, and unrequited adoration to understand that no good can come from a love affair born of trickery, misdirection, and legerdemain. I’ve now learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, to wrest the genuine article from blatant animal lust or casual “friendliness.” It’s a crucial lesson, best learned the hard way and, in hindsight, no film prepared me for this realization quite like L’Atalante.
Vigo wastes no time with a customary meet-cute: instead, we’re treated to courtside seats at the provincial marriage of a young, infatuated couple. Juliette, a simple country girl, weds her beloved in implied haste—although not for the reasons you’d expect. That aforementioned excitement, the product of so many “yearning verses,” leads her across the threshold of purity into a wild new frontier. Villagers are right to be wary of “Jean,” her strapping groom, a barge captain who makes his living piloting a lengthy vessel through a snaking network of rivers and canals. One can imagine their hurried engagement: she was taken in by this adventurous sailor, he was captivated by her unsullied naïveté. The Freudian implication of a ship seeking port is no accident: there is nothing unconscious about chemistry between Juliette and Jean. “Poor girl, she has never left the village,” remarks an old woman, observing their procession from the church. Perhaps Juliette reminds them of their own vows—and the anxiety of impending consummation.
Cherish the moment, Juliette! Today, you are a virgin bride, but tomorrow you’ll just be another man’s wife. The bloom is barely off the rose when our heroine is thrown headlong into the newfound life of a ship-bound helpmate, sharing her beloved with Michel Simon’s salty seaman “Père Jules” and a colt-ish, unnamed adolescent “Cabin Boy.” Privacy is fleeting, if not altogether nonexistent; Jean and Juliette’s hinted-at coitus interruptus is played for ironic laughter. Still, she finds a way to cultivate domestic normalcy aboard the good ship L’Atalante. Hanging laundry on the upper deck, she forgoes her girlish peasant dresses for boyish trousers; she brings a welcome “feminine touch” to the otherwise masculine maritime realm, darning Jean’s socks and knitting his sweaters—in short, absorbing the “care work” that prepares young wives for inevitable motherhood. Until, that is, a dark knight appears, throwing the idiosyncratic harmony of their floating household into a tempest.
We’ve all experienced this particularly nagging sting: sitting down for a meal with your immortal beloved, fresh off a spat that grows to outsized proportion between the appetizer and main course. Juliette soon discovers that her long-awaited Paris honeymoon is, in fact, little more than an evening at an exurban dancehall, far from the glittering arc lights of the Champs-Élysées. This tipsy and tender state makes her especially vulnerable to the advances of “le Camelot,” a traveling salesman who peppers his sales spiels with magic tricks lifted from the children’s birthday party playbook. With rhymes on his tongue and tchotchkes in his trunk, he coaxes her away from home, hearth, and husband—before leaving her, in true 19th-century-novel fashion, adrift within the underbelly of le Capital.
In Jean, Juliette seeks a truly “romantic figure,” a worldly yet world-weary traveler, always in motion. But despite this mileage and mobility, his purview is astonishingly small. Steering his ship from port to port, seeing only the literal backends of otherwise exciting locales: these are the limits of his domain, hermetically sealed against any distraction from the material world. His landscape is a river, not an ocean—and his route always the same. The first act of Vigo’s film asks us to believe in Juliette’s simplicity, her willingness to surrender all to the romantic stranger who swept her out of Podunk-ville and into a life of adventure. The couple’s first foray onto dry land, rather than a blissful respite from barge life, only exacerbates whatever fissures have sprung up between the pair. So much the better: we can excuse her impending trespass, a secret jaunt into town on the arm of a magician-peddler.
Our working definition of romance has shifted with the tide—from balladry and doomed love affairs to the store-bought treacle that opens this piece. Credit is due to Vigo’s medieval forebears: for centuries the roman, what we now call a “novel,” largely referred to collections of chivalric verse. Celebrating the bravery and fealty of young knights, a “romance” was designed to excite and instruct: boys learned the importance of respect and devotion, girls the importance of... being a virgin. As early stewards of the word and, later, genre of “romance,” French artists have forever wedded their work to a national fixation on love and its discontents. The beauty of L’Atalante is its romantic nature in every sense: a story of youthful abandon, adventure, of Orpheus seeking Eurydice on the banks of the Seine. Jean is a knight in Breton stripe, Peré Jules and the Cabin Boy his bawdy jester and bumbling but devoted page, respectively. Searching for Juliette throughout Paris’s backstreets, the trio embodies the bravery—the chivalry—ascribed to heroes of yore, searching hither and yon for a “damsel in distress.”
Would Juliette deign to define herself as such? Is she an innocent maid held captive by a smooth-talking prestidigitator, or a mature woman straining against the promise of her marriage vows? Her fleeting fancy recalls a particular verse from Lord Byron’s Childhood Recollections, one I keep at the ready to remind myself of love’s fickleness, and its iron grip on us young romantics:
Ah! sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.
Whether the object of her affection is a dependable laborer or charming trickster, the desire is the same: escape of the kind only offered by a great love affair. To say the lure is potent barely scratches the surface. I could never blame Juliette for pursuing adventure in the arms of a sailor, even her brief jailbreak from workaday married life, just as I will always forgive her upon return. Vigo’s empathetic depiction of a woman seduced and the man she leaves behind is a warning to both the lover and the beloved. Some days you’re Jean, finding respite and comfort in quiet understanding between two souls. Some days you envy Juliette’s impulsiveness, recognizing her familiar attempt to recapture the pierce of Cupid’s arrow. The tender and charming realism of their young marriage is powerful, to be sure—it may bend, even break, but isn’t beyond repair.
It had been a decade or more since I last tagged along with the motley crew of L’Atalante, and the years following that first watch have been invaluable to me as a filmmaker and ball-and-chain. Where else can one learn how to tend the campfire of enduring love, alongside a crash course in the power of symbolic imagery? This time around, it was the tangential affair between Juliette and le Camelot—no doubt a purposeful nod to Arturian legend—that held my attention. Her caprice transformed before my very eyes from a cautionary tale to something akin to memoir: there have been more than a few Camelots in my life, but only one Jean. Weighing the wild unknown of a shiny new body against a stalwart lover, Juliette choses the latter—and thus imparts a lesson to those following her down the primrose path. It’s a rare thing for those of us in love, to sleep soundly through a night alone. “Never go to bed angry” at the one who dreams beside you, lest you discover, upon waking, the nightmare of a life apart.
In my heart of hearts, I’ve enshrined L’Atalante in a sacred space between my two guiding stars: the galvanizing kineticism of Eastern European city symphonies and long-told accounts of love found, lost, and regained. Its allure was, and remains, obvious: my viewing taste tends toward the elegiac, with a special fondness for syrupy montage. Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, honed by his collaborations with brother Dziga Vertov, carved a defining through-line from Soviet montage to French poetic realism. The residual meteor shower of French modernism—in design, art, fashion and, above all, cinema—touched down throughout the West, with the lion’s share landing squarely in my own Los Angeles backyard. This was the age when a montage credit was de rigueur, as ubiquitous as “Gowns by Orry-Kelly.” Even three-hanky American melodramas bore a touch of that Continental fairy dust—in the elegiac love triangles of William Wyler’s Dodsworth, or Frank Borzage’s Living on Velvet. Films from this brief and beautiful interwar era hold a particular fascination for me: modernism as a moment of worldwide puberty, a growth spurt of progressive ideals, and loosening sexual mores.
No wonder L’Atalante climaxes with a paroxysm of montage, moaning saxophones, and fistfuls of clutched bedclothes. Sleeping apart for the first time since their marriage—Jean in his cabin, Jeanette in a shabby hotel—the star-crossed pair are reunited in a shared dream, a vision of true love with the power to penetrate disparate minds. Bobbing and weaving images from earlier in the film—no doubt due, in some part, to Vigo’s untimely death before its completion—tenderly remind us of what has been torn asunder. Juliette’s voice, revisiting an early in-joke between the fated lovers, echoes throughout the dreamscape: “Open your eyes underwater, and you will see your true love.” Is this provincial superstition, a country old wives’ tale, a little trick to be played? Or a prayer for baptism and salvation in the river Jordan of romance?