L'Atalante, by the seminal French auteur Jean Vigo, is often selected as one of the 10 best films of all time. It tells the story of early days in the marriage of a provincial French woman—with longings to sophisticate herself in Paris—to a river barge captain, who plies the river Seine. Her life aboard the barge, whose name is "L'Atalante", is complicated by the presence of a first mate, an old sea salt played by the great French comedian Michel Simon, who has a strong Breton brogue and a possessive attitude both toward the boat and the husband. His belated recognition of the value of a woman to this masculine set-up is one of the most moving transformations ever recorded.
As with The Heart of the World, L'Atalante also challenges conventions of narrative cinema to make room for an expression of the unconscious. It too privileges the image over narrative, and complicates the masculine hero myth with another archetypal pattern, the realization and revaluation of the feminine. It compassionately examines the masculine attitudes that block and enable the psyche's ability to manifest wholeness.
Noting that most commercial films are predicated upon audience identification, Beebe points out that L'Atalante depends upon and demands that you contemplate image, which circumvents identification. He asks us to be aware of how the movie denies identification. Partly, I would say this has to do with the film's discontinuities. The narrative traction is frequently interrupted, resembling more an assemblage of brief but evocative vignettes. Also, the camera's gaze is more omniscient than subjective. It does not belong to any of the characters and is outside of the action observing the scenes. Thus, we never get to learn about the characters through their own subjectivities. We have to watch and pay attention; work at understanding them.
Dita Parlo as the unhappy bride Juliette is L'Atalante's resident anima. She leaves her grieving mother behind when her husband Jean (Jean Dasté) leads her away from her Normany village to his barge on the Seine where she must find her place amidst its hypermasculinized routines. One could say that—as the anima—she must negotiate and survive the mother complexes of the sailors. From a Jungian perspective, the compatibility of the anima and the mother complex becomes the film's main psychological tension.
The wedding in the opening frames of L'Atalante is filmed like a funeral. Bells are tolling mournfully. Everyone's dour or sad. Everyone—other than the bride—is dressed in black. They form a procession two by two. Some protest that Juliette has married a stranger from outside the village and criticize that she has always craved difference. Because of her nonconformity and because they don't know Jean, they moreorless abandon her to him and will not accompany her to the barge. Beebe sees Juliette's collective life in the Normandy village as representative of the collective unconscious. The anima has to leave a collective situation to approach a new life that cannot be apprehended. Individuation is marked by the journey (configured as walking across fields, the steam clouds of trains, boats on the river). It's a mistake to think that individuation is about the ego's progress. The anima has to first separate in order to even encounter the ego. This story is, thus, about the individuation of the anima and—as June Singer might phrase it—the evolution of an archetype.
Watching Jean lead Juliette away from the village across an empty field and through dark woods, I immediately thought again of the Persephone myth, which has come for me to fully represent a woman's marriage initiation. Just as the wedding veil can be equated with the funereal shroud; just as a woman dies to her old life to accommodate her new life with her husband; just as Demeter grieves the loss of her daughter—the mythic template settles neatly into place. Without its even having to be said, it's clear that Juliette is not just a woman. She is something else and her story has the feel of a fairy tale. This is the poetic realism frequently ascribed to L'Atalante whose nearly-surreal discontinuities were to have a profound influence on later generations of French filmmakers, particularly the nouvelle vague.
The film contains a tripartite countenance of masculinity: boy, hero, parent. Jean, as the hero, balances between the cabin boy (the puer) and Le père Jules (the senex) but Jean's heroic stance is merely a posture guising an unresolved mother complex. The mother complex and the anima are not necessarily compatible. Jung, in fact, carefully distinguished the anima from the mother and cautioned that—though the anima might give a man what he needs—it might not be what he thinks he wants. The anima is not necessarily nurturing like a mother. The anima is an image of a function; not of a woman. The woman might facilitate drawing the anima out of the man; but, this does not mean she is the anima. This becomes the great challenge of accommodation between a man and a woman in the early years of relationship. If a man can integrate his anima and reconcile her with unresolved mother issues, he will be able to create room for the very real woman in his life. She, in turn, must survive how he does not accommodate her.
Relying once again on Jungian typology, Beebe sees Jean as an introverted feeling type with a hidden gentlemanliness (frequently seen in performances by Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire). He relates petulantly to Juliette's autonomy with extroverted sensation; a kind of old-fashioned patriarchal intolerance and stern rage. Juliette, on the other hand, is an extroverted thinking type because of her enthusiasm for experience and her plans for gaining same. It is when Jean's conservatism and jealousy thwarts her plans that they begin to have problems. But it's not only Jean who thwarts her plans. Le père Jules does as well. Thus, the anima is finding it hard to be compatible not only with Jean's mother complex but Le père Jules'; though his is more complex for bordering on the gynandrous. Le père Jules is more like a mother-father. He exhibits gendered tendencies of both sexes, which is confirmed by the scene where he wears a skirt, by the jar he keeps in the closet which contains his best mate's hands (all that he has left of him), and by his aside that a photograph of a naked Polynesian woman is how he "used to look like." Marina Warner's evocative essay on L'Atalante—one of Beebe's favorites—equates Le père Jules with the fairy godmother in ancient fairy tales.
What begins at first as a competition between them for the affections of the captain—manifested through bouts of laundering and sewing—softens when Le père Jules invites Juliette into his cabin. There, Juliette finds what she was not expecting: the archived beauty of experience. Things brought back from distant shores, foreign cultures; the sheen of memory. Juliette recognizes Le père Jules' capacity for life experience, something she deeply desires. It is why she left home in the first place. Le père Jules reveals to her his body covered with tattoos and, at that time—among sailors especially—you earned a new tattoo only when you crossed the equator. Thus his body, along with the mementos in his room, attest to manifested experience. She admires this. And he admires her admiration.
Their truce, however, is disrupted by Jean's jealousy. He is outraged that Juliette is in Le père Jules' cabin and that she has been combing his hair. In protest, Le père Jules gets drunk and has his head shorn. Once drunk, he leaves the barge to spend the night with a prostitute card reader in Paris. Jean—knowing he has been unfair in his judgments—can do nothing but watch him leave, even if it means he cannot take Juliette out on the town as he promised her earlier. Someone must stay behind to watch the boat. One senses at that moment Juliette's sad and difficult position as her hopes to move into the world are thwarted by the men in her life. One has to admire her for deciding on her own to experience Paris without Jean; that's just how much it means to her. Again, there is something of the anima mundi there, a thirst for the city, for culture, which belies the dreams of the anima. That Paris overwhelms her with its avarice and criminality; that her purse is stolen; that she returns to the dock to find that Jean—in anger—has abandoned her; that she cannot find work—these are the unexpected trials of her thirst for experience.
There's a lot to be said for how Jean is foolish and cruel abandoning Juliette in Paris. He is doing what he thinks is right, of course; but, his resulting depression and decreased verve for life reveal he is truly lost without her and that he has cut off a primary life line. When men become so rigid, so petrified, they need the miracle of water from stone. One of the film's most beautiful images is when Juliette assures Jean that—should he ever want to see her—he should look in water. When dunking his head in a pail of water doesn't work, Jean throws himself into the Seine. Le père Jules, comically befuddled by all Jean's behavior, looks into the pail to see what it is Jean was looking for.
What Le père Jules does comprehend, however, is that his friend, this man he loves and feels protective towards, is completely miserable without Juliette. All the life has leached out of him. It's then Le père Jules places competition aside, trumps his own mother complexes, and matures, shifting towards the father side of himself, which has become a necessary and adequate emotional expression to help mend the situation. The film is saying, Beebe explains, that a father function is required to integrate the mother complex with the anima. Using his own intuition, Le père Jules enters Paris and hunts for Juliette.
This scene is touching on many levels, not the least of which is that Juliette has found herself a room at the Hotel de l'ancre (the Anchor Hotel). "Adrift" is a word that kept coming up for me again and again watching the film and it seemed fitting that Juliette would seek security at the Hotel de l'ancre. She has taken a job at a store where—for a few tokens—people listen to music. When her boss nods off, Juliette listens to music herself, namely songs for the sea, which Le père Jules overhears. Her choice of music guides him to her. Music, throughout the film, designates memory and the record of experience. The anima is like the needle that accesses what's on the record; that, in effect, accesses memory. At this stage one can see that the rigged-up phonograph that Le père Jules attempts to piece together throughout the film is a substitution for the anima; but, it never quite works. It cannot replace Julliette. The men on the A'talante need the anima among them to round out their triad to wholeness; much like the Catholic Church needed the Virgin Mary to complete the Holy Trinity.
The other moment that touches me is how—throughout the film Le père Jules has kittens around him, often perched on his shoulder—and when he finds Juliette, he flings her up onto his shoulder and carries her home. The anima as animal companion.
Dr. Beebe recognizes Jean Vigo's genius as a visionary artist who can dialogue with an archetype, which is—in effect—a meeting between the conscious and the unconscious (as good a working definition for active imagination as any).
Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. There were many delays in filming L'Atalante due to his disease. On occasion, Vigo was forced to direct from a stretcher. The film was released while he was on his death bed. His wife, too, died of tuberculosis. Vigo was the son of the famous French anarchist Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (aka Miguel Almereyda) who was murdered in prison, where he was being held on charges of colluding with the German government during WWII. Under an assumed name to protect his identity, Vigo was enrolled and brought up in a boarding school.
It's possible that L'Atalante—with its theme of the necessary intervention of the father to piece together an emotional security for those living on the barge—might have been Vigo's way of expressing his hunger for his lost father; the anarchist who, they say, was always surrounded by cats.