The Paris Cinema Project

The story of Jean Vigo’s third film, Zéro de conduite (1933), and its premiere in Paris is well-known. Just after it opened, the French government—or, more properly, the conseil supérieuir de cinéma—banned the short feature, but not because of any salacious or violent content. Rather, French censorship at the time tended to concern itself with the representation of the country’s important institutions, the government, for instance, or the church, or, as with Vigo’s film, the educational system. This comic film about a revolt at a boys’ school struck the conseil, never known for its sense of humor, as just too much. But what about Vigo’s next film, the last one he made before his death? What was the reception of L’Atalante (1934), his film that takes place mostly on a barge, about a romance between a barge captain and the woman he meets in Paris, and often considered, now, the director’s greatest movie?  

By the time that film opened, Vigo had achieved a certain celebrity, at least in cinema circles. His first film, À propos de Nice (1930), a twenty-minute avant-garde “documentary,” had made artists and intellectuals take notice, with this film about the city in the South of France very much in the mold of other films about significant urban spaces from the period, for instance Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Vigo followed that in 1931 with another short documentary, Taris et la natation, about the great French swimmer Jean Taris (who, at the Olympics the following year, would finish second, by one-tenth of a second, to future film star Buster Crabbe in the men’s 400- meter freestyle final). Then, of course, came Zéro de conduit and the resultant controversy, which probably helped build the anticipation for L’Atalante.

In the May 16, 1934 issue, the literary Magazine Marianne celebrated the “youthfulness” of L’Atalante, and inlcuded a photo of the director with one of the film’s stars, Dita Parlo

Most of the critical discussion of L’Atalante emphasizes that critics disparaged the film when it opened for a run of just a few days, at the end of April 1934 at the Palais-Rochechouart cinema in Paris’ eighteenth arrondissement. Vigo’s biographer, P.E. Salles-Gomes, transcribed some of the reviews, and many of those are indeed critical.  But there was also a significant portion of the press that was generally supportive during this “unofficial” opening. Excelsior, for instance, claimed that L’Atalante was “an original film, with beautiful images.” The review went on that not since Jean Grémillon’s 1928 film, Maldone, had audiences been treated to such wonderful scenes of the canals of France, and that the great comic actor Michel Simon finally had abandoned his all-too familiar habit of making funny faces and instead, in his role as the old sailor, achieved something of “human truth.” Comoedia wrote, simply, that the film provided “the poetry of the barge, the poetry of the river.”

We know that, after the first playdates, the company distributing the film, Gaumont, became concerned about the commercial prospects of L’Atalante. Gaumont insisted that Vigo re-edit the film, and also inserted the hit song Le Chaland qui passe—“The Passing Barge”—which had been recorded by the great chanteuse Lys Gauty. Gaumont even renamed the film Le Chaland qui passe when it had its official release in Paris and throughout France, hoping that the link to the popular song might bring in audiences that would otherwise stay away from a film that seemed just a little too obscure (listen to Gauty sing Le Chaland qui passe here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpDHDINZNy4).

Despite Gaumont’s fears about the film’s accessibility, in the weeks after L’Atalante left the Palais-Rochechouart but months before the actual release, the French press remained enthusiastic. The weekly literary newspaper, Marianne, ran a story about the film in mid-May 1934, with the writer calling L’Atalante “an intense, personal work,” and praising the “youthfulness” of the film, with Vigo himself still in his twenties. Two weeks later, at the end of May, Pour Vous, probably the most important film tabloid in France, ran an extended appreciation of the film by one of France’s most prominent art historians, Elie Faure, who pointed out that “true French cineastes are rare.” Then he added, about Vigo, “But here is one.”

The cover of Regards featured two of the stars of L’Atalante, Dita Parlo and Michel Simon, May 25, 1934

In July 1934, L’Atalante was announced as one of the French entries in the upcoming Venice film festival. Then, As Le Chaland qui passe, Vigo’s film started its actual run in Paris towards the middle of September 1934, at the very fashionable Colisée, a 620-seat cinema in the eighth arrondissement on the Champs-Elysées. Le Chaland played there for about three weeks, and the standard L’Atalante narrative has it that Gaumont withdrew the film from circulation completely after that unsuccessful run. In fact, three weeks was a fairly standard appearance at the Colisée during the period. When it left, for instance, Vigo’s film was replaced by the 1934 Jean Bernard-Derosne melodrama, Dernière heure, which stayed for only two weeks, probably in a reprise after an initial run in Paris some months before. There wouldn’t be much written about Le Chaland qui passe while it ran at the Colisée, but this seems to have been at least a moderately popular showing.

Just a month later, in fact, in the manner of most French movies at the time but also perhaps a sign of continuing curiosity about the film, Le Chaland qui passe opened throughout Paris. In early November, it played in cinemas in the seventh, tenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth arrondissements, and then continued to move throughout the city. But between that opening at the Colisée and these more diverse playdates, something else happened that might have had an impact on interest in the movie, and, of course, on the history of French cinema. On October 5, 1934, Jean Vigo died at 29, from the tuberculosis that afflicted him most of his life.

Pour Vous memorialized the director, and here we do get a sense of a harsher response to the film than we can find in the available materials. “Jean Vigo is dead,” and then the author continued, “And I reproach myself for speaking a little too harshly of his L’Atalante, as well as Zéro de conduite.” The obituary continued, calling Vigo a “pure artist,” who died “before having given us the full measure of his talent, which doubtless would have been great.” The following week, Pour Vous ran another appreciation of Vigo, calling him “one of our most personal and gifted young directors.” La Dépêche, covering the area around Toulouse, also reported on Vigo’s death, and called L’Atalante “a mixture of comedy and…brutal realism but then suddenly interspersed with glimpses of dreams.” L’Echo de Paris explained, simply, that “at the moment his last film, L’Atalante, completed its successful career at one of the great cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, we must announce the terrible death of Jean Vigo.”

Art historian Elie Faure’s review of L’Atalante, from Pour Vous, May 31, 1934

Following the Parisian release, Le Chaland qui passe made its way through the rest of France, at the Carillon cinema in Toulouse, for instance, in December 1935, and at the Royal in Rennes in July 1936. As far as I can tell, however, from the available materials, the film did not return to any commercial cinema in Paris for the rest of the decade. It might turn up now and then in the press, in Pour Vous, for instance, in a May 1939 appreciation of Michel Simon, who had been featured in the movie, or in a piece the same film tabloid ran the following month about Dita Parlo, who also had been one of the stars. I don’t doubt, however, that the film played in the city’s ciné-clubs during the period, given its increasing reputation and also Vigo’s own earlier dedication to the development of the clubs.

Michael Temple, for his 2005 monograph Jean Vigo, discovered that, in October 1940, just a few months after the Germans took control of France, there was a successful three-week run of L’Atalante at the Ursulines cinema in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. The Ursulines specialized in experimental or difficult films, and presented a restored version of Vigo’s film, one that looked more like the L’Atalante that premiered in 1934 at the Palais-Rochechouart. This screening probably began the rehabilitation of L’Atalante among a broad range of critics and cineastes, although the movie seems not to have shown again in France until the end of the war. Then, in July 1949, the film journal Objectif 49 organized a film festival of “cursed,” or “misunderstood” movies (le festival du film maudit), which included, among others, Grèmillon’s Lumiére d’été (1943), Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or (1930), Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture (1941). Also on the roster, L’Atalante. A year later, in June 1950, L’Atalante played at the Cinémathèque française, perhaps for the first time, yet another sign of the film’s increased prestige.

Jean Cocteau’s article about the festival of
“Cursed Films,” including L’Atalante, in Combat, July 2, 1949

There were any number of French films from the period that had careers similar to that of L’Atalante, at least in its initial release, and many that were far more successful and returned to Parisian cinemas again and again, although few of them have had anything like the historical impact of that movie. I’ve chosen to write about it here in part because of having had the chance to see an astonishing 35mm print when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the late-1970s, and getting the opportunity to examine the same print, frame by frame and scene by scene, on a Steenbeck editing table. Since then, the film has been further restored to how it must have looked and sounded to those audiences at the Palais-Rochechouart in the spring of 1934. Just a few years ago, in 2016, the Gaumont company, the original distributor of Vigo’s movie, opened the Fauvettes cinema in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, as a place to see contemporary favorites and also new prints of classics. By the end of the cinema’s first year of operation, those films ranged from Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [2002]) to Max Ophül’s Madame de (1953) to Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016). But there was another film that played early in the history of the Fauvettes, a film now firmly established in the canon and one that has influenced generations of filmmakers; Vigo’s L’Atalante