I can sum up this film in one line. It tells the story of 3 people on a barge satirically named for the fleet goddess. Let me see if I can interest you by enlarging it with a few details.
The story follows Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of the barge L’Atalante and his new wife, Juliette (Dita Parlo).( Both teamed up later in La Grande Illusion). They are married, having hardly met, in Juliette’s provincial town. They set out on a trip to Paris in the barge, which functions doubly as a cargo delivery and as their makeshift honeymoon. Tensions arise with the crew, who are not used to the presence of a woman. Most of the conflict, however, stems from Jean who flies into a jealous rage, smashing plates and sending cats scattering every which way, when he discovers Juliette and first mate Jules (Michel Simon) talking in Jules’ quarters.
Once arriving in Paris, Jean and Juliette go to a music club. There they meet a street peddler who flirts with Juliette leading to a scuffle with Jean. Growing disaffected of barge life, and enamored with the lights of Paris, Juliette runs off. Jean, furious, casts off, leaving her behind. He becomes very depressed so Jules decides to look for her and bring her back.
If this film became an avant-garde masterpiece (L’Atalante was chosen as the 10th-greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 1962 poll, and as the 6th-best in its 1992 poll) it must tell something of its maker Jean Vigo who didn’t live to see what we do now. (He died at the age of 29 in 1934)
The restored version is the only version and was reconstructed from many disparate bits about 15 years ago, meaning it has had running order interpretations foisted upon it.( The original distributors cut the film’s running time in an attempt to make it more popular and changed the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe, the name of a song from the time, which was also inserted into the film.) I understand that most of the film we see came from the BFI in London, remixed with other clips into some kind of logical sequence by Gaumont in Paris and sold as a Forgotten Masterpiece.
The film has been praised for its prescient poetic realist style, but it also includes surprising surrealist passages, such as the double exposure Michel Simon wrestling match and a scene in which Jean jumps into the river. it was also a favorite of the filmmakers of the French New Wave, whose films contain many allusions to the works of Jean Vigo. ( Consider the scene of bridal march from the wedding to Jean’s barge and it is filmed in a discontinuous style that predicts the films of the French New Wave.) At this juncture let me quote the reviewer of NY Times,
‘What the late Jean Vigo was attempting to illustrate back in 1933-34 when he made Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante, the pair of Gallic importations which came to the Fifth Avenue Playhouse on Saturday, is nebulous and difficult to perceive today. Except for occasional moments of comedy, satire, and tender romance, these intellectual exercises should prove of high interest only to avid students of the cinema.
The earlier of the two, Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct), a study of life in a French boarding school for boys, is a series of vignettes lampooning the faculty climaxed by a weird, dreamlike rebellion of the entire student body. These amorphous scenes, strung together by a vague continuity, may be art but they are also pretty chaotic.’( A. H. Weiler- June 23, 1947)
Let me quote two passages that serve as a sampler of Vigo’s powerful hold on ‘avid students of cinema.’ The first passage is from an essay on ‘Surfaces of Reality’ by Michael Roemer.
‘Images of movement rather than beautifully composed shots are at the heart of the medium and some of the most haunting moments in the film derive from motion. In Vigo’s L’Atlante, a bride on her wedding night ,still dressed in her white gown , walks along the deck of a moving barge. The barge moves forward, she is walking towards the stern, and the camera is set on the edge of the canal, so that there is a dark stationary line in the foreground. The combination of the silent forward gliding of the barge with the backward motion of the girl whose gown and veil are streaming in the wind has a profound emotional impact: it renders perfectly both her feelings and our own.’ We see a scene where if were given pause to think we would easily see it as not possible but yet we are carried by the poetic truth of preceding scenes to enter into a subjective state as in the processional at the end of Vigo’s Zero for conduite,’ is shot in slow motion, with the boys in their white gowns gliding through a snow of pillow feathers to the accompaniment of a totally distorted but oddly ecstatic song.’
ZERO FOR CONDUCT (MOVIE)
Produced, edited, and directed by Jean Vigo; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Vigo; cinematographer, Boris Kaufman; music by Maurice Jaubert; released by Cine Classics. Black and white. Running time: 44 minutes.
With: Jean Dasté (Superintendent Hugnet), Robert La Fion (Superintendant Pete-Sec), Du Veron (Superintendant Dec-de-Gez), Delphin (Principal), Madame Emile (Mother Haricot), and Larive (Professor).
* Fille De L’Eau
* Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors
* La Belle Nivernaise
* Chungking Express
* L’ Hirondelle et la mesange.
The much lauded cinematography was by Boris Kaufman. He would later go on to shoot great Hollywood films such as On the Waterfront. Nevertheless, he described his years working with Vigo as “cinematic paradise.”(Wikipedia)