Jean Vigo made only four films before he died of tuberculosis in 1934, aged just 29. Yet no movie-lover, however eccentric, could compose a list of 100 films through which the cinema should be celebrated without including at least one of his works.
The last and greatest was l’Atalante (1934), butchered for commercial release and, though partially restored, even now unable to be seen exactly as its director intended. He was the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who has to fight every step of the way against people of less imagination and sensibility. I’m willing to sweep up the stars’ crap, he once wrote when trying for a job as an assistant.
In the end, none of Vigo’s films prospered until long after his death. But think of Renoir and of Bunuel, put the two together and you have Jean Vigo – the son of a militant anarchist who took the name Miguel Almereyda because it contained all the letters of ”merde” (shit) and was almost certainly murdered in prison.
L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to Vigo by Gaumont, despite the fact that Zero De Conduite, his astonishing evocation of an unhappy childhood, had been banned by the censors. He changed it utterly, at least in tone, but had by then become so ill that he constantly risked collapse as he was making it. There is, however, no sign whatever of his impending death in the film itself.
The distraught husband imagines his wife reflected in the water. Meanwhile, she tires of wandering the cruel streets of Depression-era Paris. There are prostitutes and beggars and thieves everywhere. Men try to pick her up, she has her handbag stolen and she goes forlornly in search of the barge. In the end she is found by the old man, and the lovers are reunited.
The film is a masterpiece not because of the tragic story of its maker nor because of its awkward genesis, but be cause, as Truffaut has said, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.
The beginning of the inarticulate young couple’s life together has an erotic charge rare in the French cinema of the time. So have the sequences when, parted by their quarrel, they long for each other in silence. Vigo, said the French critic Andre Bazin, had an almost obscene taste for the flesh. As a result, the couple’s final reconciliation is the stronger and more moving.
Added to that, Vigo created characters who, though larger than life, seemed absolutely true to it. Michel Simon alone gave an amazing performance as the bargeman. But then, Simon was one of the greatest of screen presences. Vigo was not afraid of going beyond realism while still insisting on the grittiness of ordinary life.
The poetic power of the film, however, had a lot to do with the cinematography of the Russian-born Boris Kaufman, who worked on each of Vigo’s films and was said to be the youngest brother of Dziga Vertov, and a collaborator with him on the famous Kino-Pravda films. Kaufman later went to Hollywood, where he helped make On The Waterfront, but he always recalled the days of working so closely with Vigo as “cinematic paradise”. The images he and Vigo created with l’Atalante were dreamlike but intense and entirely without sentiment. And the final shot of the barge, taken from on high, is an abiding triumph. Maurice Jaubert’s superb score was a perfect match.
Gaumont found the film commercially worthless, hacked it to pieces and retitled it Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge), inserting a popular song of that name into the sound-track. It was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty”.
Only a few days after the first, disappointing run ended, Vigo died. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end of it. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out of the window.