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.

2 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.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r * is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more:
See more:
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies