It's pay-back time for Jean Vigo. In early-Thirties France, Vigo was a hot property, too hot for some, in fact, given that his schoolboy-satire Zero de Conduite (A Zero For Conduct) incurred the wrath of French censors for its irreverence. When it came time for a follow-up project, Vigo tried to tame his genius, choosing to film L'Atalante, a tale of a newly-wed couple's early travails and triumphs on a canal barge.
But Vigo's ploy backfired. Gaumont-Franco-Film Aubert, the film's distributor, didn't like the product. It was too gloomy. Too brooding. With Vigo bedridden, Gaumont paid a replacement director to wield presumptuous scissors, to cut and slash L'Atalante into something palatable. The bowdlerized version, complete with new title (Le Chaland Qui Passe) opened in Paris in September 1934, and despite good critical notices, impatient audiences laughed the film out of town. Less than a month later, the 29-year-old Vigo's lungs failed him.
Now, more than 50 years after their mutilation of Vigo's original, and almost 30 years after a 1962 Sight and Sound poll named L'Atalante one of the ten best films ever, Gaumont has apologized. Working mainly from a 1934 print of the film discovered at the British Film Institute Archives, the company has poured $250,000 into a detailed reconstruction. For Vigo, the atonement is too little, too late; for the rest of us, it's sensational. Fascinating not only archivally, but narratively, L'Atalante possesses a stunning visual style and a humorous, confident script, as well as a wonderful score by Maurice Jaubert and topnotch cinematography by Boris Kaufman (whose later work in Hollywood projects included On the Waterfront).
The intentionally simple plot emerges from a dispositional conflict between the newly-weds: The husband's possessive nature clashes with his young wife's wanderlust. Though Vigo receives excellent work from both Jean Daste, who plays the barge captain, and Dita Parlo, as his bride Juliette, L'Atalante is galvanized by a tremendous performance by the chunky, bearish Michel Simon. Best known for his starring roles in the Renoir films La Chienne and Boudu Saved From Drowning, Simon is transcendent as the slovenly, cat-loving mate Pere Jules, a harmlessly ribald, huge-hearted swine who tries to seduce Juliette and then settles for her friendship. In the film's most rewarding comic sequence, Jules tours Juliette through his cabin, littered with the detritus of a seafaring life (including a puppet box from Caracas and a vintage gramophone). After stripping off his coveralls to display his tattoos, Jules smokes a cigarette with his navel. Juliette, predictably, is entranced.
For the tattoo scene - and many others, including a stunning multiple-dissolve shot in which Jules playfully demonstrates Greco-Roman wrestling on the barge deck - we have only the restoration to thank. As unfortunate as the original Gaumont editing was, though, the cruelest cut was the truncation of Vigo's life. When Juliette, in luminous white, stands on the bowsprit and slides across the frame, or when the two lovers try to overcome a separation by fantasizing about each other, there's a profoundly lyrical eroticism in L'Atalante, entirely free of irony or crass prurience. The film ends with a breathtaking aerial shot of the barge. Beautiful and powerful, it never plunges into the water, only skims across the surface. The image is a fitting epitaph.