There, where fairy tales end, begins the story of Jean and Juliette. On leaving the church, the newly-wed couple embarks for their honeymoon on board the motor barge Atalante. Together with Jean, captain of the boat, and Juliette, there are Pére Jules, an old and eccentric mariner covered with tattoos and with a passion for cats, and a young hand. It´s the opening scene of the only feature film realised by Jean Vigo, L´Atalante (1935).
"He focused his lens only on the real and transformed it into fairy tales", claimed Truffaut about the young director, who died at 29, precisely during the shooting of that which would have become one of the great cinema masterpieces, and not only in France.
What strikes the most is undoubtedly the sincerity and simplicity of this “small subject”, which tells about the passion of a young couple and about the difficulties of the first moments of a life to be spent together.
Happiness and enthusiasm are soon replaced by the difficulties Julliette encounters in adapting to the life on board the barge. After a quarrel with Jean, and attracted by the much more stimulating and interesting allure of the city, the young woman leaves the Atalante.
Touching and at the same time intensely sensual, is the scene in which Jean – in his bed on board his boat – and Juliette – in a hotel room several kilometers away – realise the sentiment and feeling that bind them together, of which the sudden absence has deprived them of.
Vigo´s narration combines two of the major cinematic tendencies of the first decades of the 20th century, namely realism and aestheticism, thereby contributing to the popularity of what would be known as poetic realism.
Jean lived a troubled childhood, marked by the absence of his parents, Miguel Almereyda* and Emily Clero, sixth of five brothers born from a former relationship and all dead at a very young age, educated in a boarding school, ill since he was a kid. The only inheritance he was left with had been his paternal grandfather´s motto “I protect the weakest!” that Jean didn´t hesitate to put into practice in his short but brilliant career**.
Before L´Atalante he had realised the two short films À propos de Nice (1930) and Zéro de conduite (1933), both characterised by his peculiar sperimentalism, which would be fully represented precisely in L´Atalante.
If you can keep your eyes open under water, you will be able to see your beloved one…
Jean dives in the canal, crazy for love, hoping to meet his Juliette. It´s the well-known underwater scene, in which he sees the young woman, laughing, in her bride dress.
Eventually Juliette will be found by Pére Jules and, once back on board, will finally hug her beloved Jean. Now this story can end, just as in fairy tales.
* His real name was Miguel Bonaventura de Vigo, but he changed it in Almereyda because it sounded Spanish, and therefore remembered his andorran origins, and because it contained the letters of the phrase y a la merde!
**Truffaut François, The Films in my Life, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1978 (original title: Les films dans ma vie, 1975); pp. 24, 25, 26.