ANDREW CHRISTOPHER GREEN: By the time we got to the Rhine, the sun had just set. It was emitting an embers-glow from beneath the horizon, diffusing a gradient of pale to navy blue in the crescent of the sky it’d set behind. In summer the dusk goes on for a remarkably long time here. We were there to watch the flight of a spacecraft being launched from Florida, which a friend had told us would be visible if we looked south/south-west. But sitting down under the promenade against the flood-wall there wasn’t much of a sky to see beyond the skyscrapers in the Medienhafen. We also didn’t know when exactly the launch would take place, and just intermittently looked off in the direction we supposed it’d be visible in. I was tired after work, and he’d made another Tex-mex Thai fusion bowl of vegetables, rice, and shrimp, which turned to a lightly perfumed and contradictory, homogenous mush in my mouth. This dish spelled out the worst of his culinary capabilities and confused flavor profiles. He could tell from my silence that something was wrong and tried to relate to me by pointing out the warm silhouettes of some bushes further down the river bank, and said they were beautiful. I felt like he wouldn’t have said that or even noticed them if I wasn’t there, though, and thought they were ugly for this reason alone. A few awkward minutes later we saw a light flying through the sky much faster than either of us had expected. It was the first privately funded spacecraft to fly into orbit and dock to the international space station. The next day I woke up to a text saying that the launch had been delayed due to weather conditions, and that what we saw was the space station itself. I laughed and realized that this must be why conspiracy theories about the moon-landing exist; not much can be verified by your own experience alone. And who can you believe if you’re not able to trust yourself anymore? We sat a while longer, and just before the dusk turned fully into night a barge came driving downstream. It had a light hanging from a pole off its bow like an angler fish’s, and another from its cabin by the stern that was green, and they cast a long reflection on the black water which vibrated when it passed over a current. The only thing I could muster out was that it made me of think of these unhappy newly-weds living on a barge in a film called L’Atalante by Jean Vigo, who died when he was only 29.
PATRICK HOLZAPFEL: Weit auf einer entlegenen Wiese, als wir noch gar nicht wussten, was das alles bedeutet, sind wir losgezogen und durch das hohe, vertrocknete Gras, das uns an den Beinen kratzte, gewandert und jedes Mal, wenn wir uns umsahen und merkten, dass wir unser Dorf nicht mehr sahen, überfiel uns ein leichter Panikschauer, aber wir sind trotzdem weitergegangen, weil uns irgendwas gerufen hat, etwas aus der Tiefe.
Wir hörten verschwommene Geräusche aus einem anderen Leben, eine Versuchung, die so undeutlich war, dass wir nicht unterscheiden konnten, ob sie den Tod ankündigte oder das Glück. Ich glaube, dass wir alle früher oder später in diese Tiefe folgen. Es gibt auf dieser Erde kein Wissen darüber wie es dort aussieht, aber wenn es einen Anker gibt, hat ihn der todkranke Jean Vigo hinterlassen, als seine letzten Bilder, die nie versinken dürfen. Ich verstehe nicht wie man einen solchen Film über die Liebe drehen kann. Niemand kann so einen Film über die Liebe drehen.
ANNA BABOS: I always find it interesting what is missing and what remains from the memory of a film. In this case, I had the impression that the barge in L’Atalante was a rather uncanny place, with some treasures belonging to an old sailor, Père Jules. I also recalled his friendship to Juliette. After revisiting the film, I still think that this relationship is the most moving part of the film. Such an odd couple of friends: the always drunken, dirty and worldly sailor and the young girl from the countryside, dreaming of Paris.
The most memorable scene of their relationship is when Père Jules enthusiastically shows her the exotic gadgets he acquired, objects that obviously mean a lot to him and together with the cats, make him truly happy. This desire to show things that had a special importance in one’s past is a nice gesture. The film takes the time to explore these unique and sometimes scary objects, and Juliette shows honest interest and joy in getting to know this man. Juliette, as Alice in Wonderland, discovers the room of the puppet conductor from Caracas, fans from Japan, anatomical specimens, photographs of the young Jules, a pair of cut-off hands in a jar. Both of them gain a lot emotionally from this relationship. Père Jules finds someone who really pays attention to him, while his objects allow Juliette to enter the amazing and manifold world she is longing for.
SIMON PETRI: As an emotional hierarchy of relationships is rendered normative, a consequent injustice is inevitable. What scorn and unearned superiority feed into the archetype of the cat lady; what neglect can friends experience when their romantic engagement happens asynchronously with that of their companions. Of all the ties that bind, it may be that only love matches Jean Vigo’s exceptional sensitivity and (tragically bewildering) vivacity. In L’Atalante, desire and feeling take artistic form in an inexplicable blend of clarity and opacity, and spasmodic yet innocent clashes. Accompanying the breezy glow that surrounds Jean and Juliette, the thick and boozy world of Père Jules, the sudden realization of having been pushed to the side, his care for kittens and his extraordinary soul are explored with the same tenderness, because, in feverish empathy, Vigo conveys the pain of the hierarchy in question. The sudden rupture of friendship is certainly not Juliette’s responsibility. In fact, she and Père Jules are very kind to each other. It’s rather Jean, who perhaps has always been too hasty and impatient for Père Jules but his focus and ability to listen are now more challenged than ever. This may sound like a minor drama compared to the overwhelming fanatism that youth and love evoke, which makes Vigo’s equal responsiveness all the more mind-expanding.
Images from L’Atalante by Jean Vigo and L’eau de la Seine by Téo Hernandez.
DAVID PERRIN: The first and only time I saw L’Atalante was in March 2019 at Anthology Film Archives on 35mm and I still remember the warmness of the evening, the memory of the air on my skin like it was the last day of winter or the first day of spring. Strangely enough, the film itself I can remember only with difficulty, like trying to see underwater: indistinct images of villages, houses, bridges and trees as viewed from a barge slowly making its way down the Seine towards Paris, the sky full of low-hanging clouds; Michel Simon below deck, a pipe jutting out from the corner of his mouth, lovingly caressing a black kitten; Jean Daste’s dark eyes emerging from underneath his fishermen’s cap; Dita Parlo hovering in an underwater dreamscape, the radiance of her smile enough to momentarily alleviate the weight of the world.
Beyond that, I remember mostly the room itself where I watched it, the small ground-floor theater named after that other poet of cinema, whose birthday is only a few days shy of Jean Vigo’s: Maya Deren…I remember the nearly empty theater and the other moviegoers as vague shapes in the dark; the uncomfortable front row seat I sat in and the pain in my lower back; the steady succession of image, rather than the images themselves. I remember the sound of the evening traffic outside which every so often I’d be able to hear inside, the two layers of sound – the noise of cars driving endlessly up and down 2nd Avenue and the wavelets of the Seine breaking onto shore – merging and becoming one. After the film, I took the hour-long subway ride home, the images of Vigo’s film most likely still heavy on the underside of my eyelids, and as the train crossed the Queensborough Bridge over the East River, I probably saw, as I always did, the barges and other boats on the waterway as little dots of light slowly moving up into the inland of the country. Or maybe I’m just imagining all of this, just as Daste dreamed of seeing his beloved floating in the beautiful haze of a dream.
I remembered that there was some in-camera trickery done to create the double exposures during Jean’s swim in L’Atalante. Upon further inspection, it was in fact a traditional double exposure, but in the interceding years between my last two rewatches of Vigo’s film there have been other images – also in B&W – that have fooled me, creating double exposures and crossfades I thought were otherwise impossible. The impossibility was implanted by Vigo, the filmmaker whose image I returned to four subsequent times as precedent.
Two of the following images were achieved in-camera. These images I’d like to call mutual movies.
The third Jean – being Epstein – reminded me that irises in/out used to be achieved in-camera, a one-time given in the cinematic apparatuses of the 1920’s and 30’s, now impossible in digital cameras, much like black and white (without the assistance of post-production tinkering, at least). That tactility imbues itself onto the subsequent crossfade, seeming to happen spontaneously and contingent on incidental flares from the sun, perched just above (yet another) Jean – and Marie – in Coeur Fidèle.
More Jeans, both Cocteau and Marais, from Orphée. Leaning upon an upright mirror, the glass surrounding Marais’ head in the foreground creates enough of a negative space to crossfade into an inverted image of Marais laying atop another mirror, covered in sand.
So now, the mutual movies. The subsequent shots were achieved in-camera at times when black and white was becoming outmoded (1984 and 1976, respectively).
Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl
And Terence Davies’ Children, a shot whose double exposures and crossfades become one; a shot whose power I must approximate in the following stills:
SEBASTIAN BOBIK: Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis a short time after L’Atalante was released in 1934. It is commonly believed that his declining health is tied to the shooting of the film, which was supposedly scheduled for summer 1933, but only started in November. Vigo suffered in the cold conditions, but still tirelessly worked on the film. For some parts of filming, he was bedridden. In a way he was making this film from his deathbed. In the case of Vigo, it is especially tragic, since he was only 29 years old when he died. One can only imagine what films could have still followed. He isn’t the only one to have spent his final days that way.
There have been some cases in film history, where this has happened – at what expense, I wonder.
According to Pauline Kael for instance, it was easier to direct than to breathe for John Huston when he realized The Dead, at the age of 80, bound to a wheelchair. In Chris Marker’s Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch, we see the fragile Andrei Tarkovsky, ruling over the editing of Offret from the bed of a hospital.
The status of a film as a final gesture has some very fascinating implications. The question of how these people must have felt and why they spent their final months or years with these films is inevitable. One wonders if their status as a final film is actually visible in the works themselves. Is Offret a final film? Is L’Atalante a final film? Is there something in their form, that gives this away? Can we see what pushed these filmmakers? Is there a generosity in this gesture of creating a final work to leave for the world? Could they have taken this time instead to retire, to take better care of their state? Is there, as the title of Tarkovsky implies a “sacrifice” made within these films? But even if there is a selflessness in these acts, and they are admirable, looking at them only as selfless might be reductive. There is something obsessive about this idea too. People, who just couldn’t rest, who had to finish one last film. What pain it must have cost their loved ones, to see them exert themselves like this over one last work.