Sight + Sound critics chose two French films from the 1930s which are directed by men named Jean, and I want them both remade with Tom Waits attached to star. I don’t actually think that L’Atalante or La règle du jeu should be remade (I don’t actually think any film should be remade) but both films have characters that are spitting images of the character of Tom Waits. It was distracting and not at all the fault of the films or their directors.
L’Atalante is the fourth, and final, film from French director Jean Vigo, who died less than a month after the film was released. It is the love story between Juliette and Jean, played by Dita Parlo and Jean Daste, respectively. The film opens just after the wedding of the pair in a small village as the two climb aboard L’Atalante, the barge that Jean captains. There Juliette is introduced to Pere Jule, played by Michel Simon (Tom Waits), and an important yet unnamed cabin boy, Louis Lefebvre.
The story is fairly simple, and looking at this film eighty-one years after it was made, it would be easy to overlook. However, film as art was still being defined in 1934, as was film censorship. Twenty-five minutes had been cut from the film and Vigo could do little to stop it with his failing health. He was twenty-nine at the time of his death. The few years that he had were spent breaking the rules and conventions of cinema. Of the film, critic David Thompson says, “not so much a masterpiece as a definition of cinema,” which stands as fairly high praise and should give viewers pause as to the importance of L’Atalante.
Also, stars of this film that also act as stand-ins for Vigo himself are Pere’s cats. Throughout the film, the cats seem to do as they please, acting with no remorse for being in the way, a level of anarchy that mirrors the lifestyle of their director. L’Atalante, while I will not argue its importance to the history of cinema, is a film with promise, both literal and figurative. During the film you witness young love, a first fight, a sage father-figure, cats, and redemptive love. But you also see promise of what could have been had Vigo not died. There are lists upon lists of important director debuts and there are even more lists of failures that still started careers. If you have a favorite director, think for a moment about how many films they would not have made, then consider an idea that their debut may not have existed without Jean Vigo, a director who likely inspired the inspiration of whoever you have chosen.