More a tendency than a genre in its own right, Poetic Realism was a highly influential yet short-lived movement in French cinema of the 1930s, a brief outbreak of lyricism sandwiched between the bludgeoning horrors of two world wars. Unlike Soviet montage or French impressionism, poetic realism was never a unified movement or ideology, rather a loosely conceived feeling and evocation: poetic, otherworldly at times, yet committed to showing reality “as it was”—a cinema of life and of heart.
Despite the fact that he only lived to make four films, director Jean Vigo is credited with founding poetic realism, first with Zéro de conduite (1933), an unusually realistic evocation of an unhappy childhood that was banned by censors, and his masterpiece, L’Atalante (1934).
Namesake of a Greek Goddess, L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to the director by distributors Gaumont, but Vigo transformed it completely, employing the dreamlike cinematography of Russian-born Boris Kaufman—who would later work in Hollywood—and a surreal, poetic style never before seen in cinema.
On the surface a straightforward romantic tale—two newly weds on a river barge cruise who fight, separate and then are reunited—L’Atalante is a masterpiece, for as New Wave director François Truffaut describes, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.
Separated from his wife, the distraught husband imagines her reflected in the water. Simultaneously, departed wife encounters horror after horror on the streets of Depression-era Paris; beggars and thieves are everywhere, men make unwanted approaches and her handbag is stolen—persons and actions all evocative of a broken and unhappy inner state. In deep regret she forlornly but fruitlessly searches for husband and barge—shots of her longing for him in silence. By chance a crew member discovers her and the couple are reunited.
Although highly poetic, L’Atalante is also grounded in reality, the director alternating the bitter-sweet narrative of separation and reconciliation with unflinching images of the grit and ugliness of everyday life, a practise never before seen in contemporary cinema—usually located in the artificial and fantastic—and rare even today. The film is evocative of the Japanese conception of beauty, mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), in which beauty is said to exist even in its opposite; that which is ugly as reminder of beauty absent.
Critic Hal Hinson goes so far as to suggest Vigo’s poetic realism is other-world inspired:
“There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo's style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.”
He continues: “The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it... The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there's a logic to the way in which it's ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They're organised by feeling, not intellect.”
While making L’Atalante Vigo was so ill that he constantly risked collapse, and even directed some scenes from a stretcher. Remarking on the director's state of mind during this period, Truffaut suggests that “It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” and when a friend advised Vigo to guard his health, the director replied that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”
Due to the high degree of realism employed in his films—often to unflattering effect—Jean Vigo was accused of being unpatriotic, his work heavily censored by the French Government. L’Atalante has never been fully restored from the butchering it received from distributors, who attempted to increase its popularity by reducing the running time and changing the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge)—the name of a popular song inserted like an axe into the film. L'Atalante was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty.”
Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis in 1934 aged just 29, only a few days after the first disappointing cinematic run of L’Atalante. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him as he died, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out a window.
Vigo has been described as the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who fights every step of the way against lesser imagination and sensibility, and he is perhaps lucky not to have lived to see his masterpiece so barbarically hacked to pieces. History has viewed Vigo’s work more favourably, with L’Atalante being ranked as the 10th greatest film of all time in a 1962 Sight & Sound poll, rising to 6th best in 1992.
L’Atalante, together with similar works of poetic realism by contemporaries Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, significantly changed the course of French and world cinema, leading directly to the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s, and the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, which in turn inspired an increasing sense of realism in Hollywood cinema. Many of the Neorealist and Nouvelle Vague directors worked upon the sets of poetic realist films before beginning their own careers, and allusions to Jean Vigo and L'Atalante can be found in many of their works.