The voyage of L’ATALANTE.

Within four years he filmed three acclaimed shorts and one feature that would later be hailed a masterpiece – only to die on October 5th, 1934, at the age of 29, from rheumatic septicaemia. Jean Vigo’s short life had been plagued by health problems, including an affliction of tuberculosis he got eight years earlier in 1926. Here’s something you probably shouldn’t do if you’ve suffered tuberculosis: spend three months during a particularly harsh winter shooting a story about barge dwellers on location, outdoors, on water, in the rain, snow, and fog. These extreme circumstances combined with the debilitating nature of an intensive and frenetic shooting schedule contributed to the young, frail director contracting the illness that would eventually kill him a few months after filming was completed. Adding insult to injury, the director was too weak from his illness to protest the mutilations that distributors inflicted on his first, and tragically, only feature film: L’Atalante.


How severe were the changes? For starters, the original audience that saw the film when it opened in September of 1934 at the Colisée cinema, on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, were introduced to the film not as L’Atalante, but rather as Le Chaland qui passe. This translates into “The Passing Barge,” and was also a hit song of the time by Lys Gauty, one that exhibitors insisted on inserting into the film to help its commercial prospects. That might seem a small change, but changing the title of the film from the name of the barge to something so literal-minded smacks of a commercial instinct hoping to cash in on a pop hit, and is at odds with the more poetic sensibility clearly on display in Vigo’s work. In modern terms it would be like having the studio add a Daft Punk song to your film and then calling the film Get Lucky. It’s also worth noting that this ploy didn’t help the films bottom-line. Despite some favorable reviews, this shortened and commercialized version of Vigo’s film sank away and seemed destined for obscurity.


The title change was only one of many changes made to the film, and if there is any consolation to be had from the director’s failing health, it’s that he was forced to stay in bed for the three weeks that the truncated 65 minute version of his original 89 minute film was being screened. As fate would have it, Le Chaland qui passe was screening at the Adyar cinema on the afternoon of Vigo’s burial into the Bagneux cemetery on October 8th, 1934. But as fate would also have it, L’Atalante would reappear in October of 1940, with Le chaland qui passe removed from the soundtrack as well as the title – but this was still a shortened version of the original.

With the original negative mysteriously missing, and a sudden resurgence of interest in the work of Jean Vigo thanks, at first, to the French Federation of Film Clubs and, later, to the efforts of various industry notables seeking to resurrect Vigo’s career, the number of versions of L’Atalante one could find were confined only to the number of prints that had circulated around the world. Thankfully, Gaumont had accidentally sent a 1934 copy of L’Atalante, instead of Le Chaland qui passe, to London. This overlooked print then drifted into the vaults of the NFTVA warehouse in Berkhamstead, and was crucial to the 1990s restoration by Jean-Louis Bompoint and Pierre Philippe. In 2001 other changes were introduced in a renovation by Bernard Eisenschitz and Luce Vigo, which sought less to be a comprehensive restoration using all available and found material and, instead, a restoration that honed down the elements to what they imagined Vigo’s had originally intended for the screen.

Many of the actors were personal friends of Vigo (Jean Dasté, Gilles Margaritis, Fanny Clar, Raphael Diligent), but Michel Simon (Boudu sauvé des eaux, aka: Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) was already well established, as was Dita Parlo (who had a contract with Ufa and also did some work for Hollywood). Cameraman Boris Kaufman deserves a special shout out. The brother of Dziga Vertov, Kaufman has the kind of illustrious career that puts him in a small pantheon of accomplished cinematographers, going on to shoot things like On the Waterfront (1954), Baby Doll (1955), 12 Angry Men (1957), and many other great films.


Vigo’s final resting place was in the same cemetery that his father, anarchist Miguel Alemereyda, had been buried in 17 years earlier after being mysteriously murdered in prison (he was strangled by his shoelaces). His wife, Lydou Vigo joined this final resting place on April 24th, 1939, also passing away at a young age, she was 30-years-old. Jean had met Lydou (aka: Elisabeth Lozinska) at a tubercular clinic and it was thanks to the marriage dowry he received by Lydou’s father that Jean was able to buy a camera to make his first film, À propos de Nice (About Nice, 1930). His second short, Taris, roi de l’eau (Taros, King of the Water, 1931), was a documentary about French swimmer Jean Taris. But what followed next,  a 44-minute condemnation of boarding schools called Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct, 1933), was such a clear indictment of authority that it was censored in France until after WWII. For those interested in a cool double-feature, you could watch Zéro de conduite and follow that with a screening of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968), which was a conscious tribute to the former. As to L’Atalante, I’d recommend making it a triple-feature by adding Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and a film by the director who just made big waves with Holy Moters last year, Leo Carax’sThe Lovers on the Bridge (1991).

L’Atalante screens on TCM this coming Tuesday, September 24th.

3 Responses The voyage of L’ATALANTE.
Posted By robbushblog : September 30, 2013 4:23 pm

How was Luce Vigo related to Jean Vigo, if at all?

Posted By swac44 : October 2, 2013 1:54 pm

She is his daughter.

Posted By Zéro de Conduite (1933) | FLICKIPEDIA: There's a Movie for That : September 3, 2014 2:25 am

[…] The voyage of L’ATALANTE. […]

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