In July 1933, producer Jacques-Louis Nounez gave director Jean Vigo a story about barge-dwellers called “L'Atalante”, written by Jean Guinée. At the time, films and music about barge dwellers were popular in France, featuring in popular songs of the time “Chanson de halage” and “Le chaland qui passe”. Vigo initially disliked the story, apparently asking “What the fuck do you want me to do with this? It’s Sunday-school stuff” –  but eventually agreed to make a film, albeit one of a distinctly more adult feel. L’Atalante, which follows Jean, the captain of the canal barge L'Atalante, and his new young wife Juliette as they travel to Paris (along with Jean's crew, Père Jules and a cabin boy) is about frustrated desire, control and compulsion, and the eddying intersecting spirals of love and conflict.

In the original script, Père Jules had a pet dog; Vigo gave him more than ten alley cats, supplied for the film by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which the Society perhaps regretted, given the regularity with which the cats are hurled around the set). According to P. E. Salles Gomes’s biography of Vigo, the cats became fascinated by the phonograph played in certain scenes by Père Jules. Colette, one of the 20th century’s greatest French writers, saw the cat as a cipher for the divine feminine, expressions of some mystical sensuality and independence of spirit. In this film, as Jean struggles to contain Juliette’s desire to explore the world beyond the barge, the cats form a mute chorus who mirror back some of her obscure and fierce energy.

The weather conditions for the shoot were poor, and the effects of the cold and damp were heightened by Vigo’s insistence on shooting at night to capitalise on the artificial lights of the barge and the houses along the canal. Vigo, who already had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, was confined to his bed for periods of the shoot, though he refused to cease production. Shortly after the film was completed, he died, aged 29, in October 1934.

Graham Fuller reports that “just before shooting, Vigo told a Belgian journalist that he was using Guinée’s scenario ‘merely as a loose frame allowing me to work with images of the waterways, the environment of the canal-workers, and the actors’. He was as good as his word.” The locks, long stretches of canal and sluice-gates form a striking yet squalid background, unrolling behind the barge. Water is typically evoked in art to cleanse or renew; here, the closing scenes – in which Jean ends up in the river – perform no such baptismal ritual. In the original text, Guinée writes that, “Happiness has fled the vessel.” Vigo’s ending is less gloomy, yet remains ambivalent: the couple are reunited, they regard one another warily, they embrace. It’s not clear what’s to come; the future rolls on ahead, reflecting back the sky. ◉

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