The cats, not the cast, draw viewers’ eyes in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante

The cats, not the cast, draw viewers’ eyes in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante

Jean Vigo’s 1934 barge-set romance L’Atalante regularly appears on lists of the greatest movies ever made, often very close to the top. It features indelible performances by Michel Simon, as the barge’s irascible first mate, and Dita Parlo, as the young bride whose intense fascination with the marvels of Paris creates a rupture in her marriage. Vigo, who wasn’t yet 30 years old, was terribly ill during the film’s production and died of tuberculosis before it was completed, ensuring his enshrinement as a genius—we think highly of Orson Welles as it is, but just imagine if he’d made only Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, then dropped dead. We’re talking about a legendary picture here, one of the most important in cinema history. A film that’s been discussed and analyzed for decades, in classrooms and essays, tackled from just about every conceivable angle.

I would like to talk about all the fucking cats in it.

Originally, Simon was supposed to have just a single big dog, which would have made for a more traditional dynamic. Vigo grew up with stray cats overrunning the house, however, and decided to make the character a cat-lover instead. Rather than give Simon one cat, he opted to give him 10. Consequently, apart from a few scenes that take place onshore, there’s scarcely a shot in L’Atalante that doesn’t include a cat somewhere in the background, doing its thing. I’m not sure there’s another fiction feature in existence with so much incidental animal action (i.e., the animal isn’t the focal point). And this turns out to have a fascinating effect on the way the movie functions. Take, for example, this early scene in which the newlyweds, coming straight from the wedding ceremony, arrive at the barge for their less-than-glamorous honeymoon, with Simon and his teenage sidekick (Louis Lefebvre) struggling to afford them a proper welcome. 

“Never work with children or animals,” goes the old saying, which presumably refers to the difficulty during production. But there’s another potential danger, one specific to animals (it would also apply to infants, except that they’re rarely mobile): Any shot in which they appear instantly becomes a documentary about their behavior. A dog or a horse can be trained to perform certain actions, but it can never act, in the sense of pretending that it isn’t being photographed, or otherwise comporting itself expressly for the camera. As a result, once you see an animal in the shot, it’s hard not to fixate on it, because there’s no telling what it’s going to do. It doesn’t know it’s in a movie, and that automatically makes it more compelling, on a certain level, than the people in the foreground who do know they’re in a movie. And while all of this is true of any animal, it’s arguably even more true about cats, who truly could not care less about what anybody on the set would prefer that they do or not do. How can you not stare at a cat?

So when Michel Simon picks up that tiny kitten and tosses it on his shoulders, I lose track of the ostensible story. The focus is meant to be on the bouquet of flowers that accidentally gets kicked overboard, and the comic interplay between Simon and Lefebvre as they improvise a solution, but all I can see is the kitty hanging on for dear life as Simon moves around the barge, completely indifferent to the fact that there’s a goddamn cat on his back. It’s seriously as if he forgot he put it there. The poor thing nearly gets flung off at one point, just barely managing to hook its claws into Simon’s jacket. What’s more, every cut suddenly becomes an adventure in continuity, because my first impulse is to see whether the cat is still in place. And it always is! Clearly, Vigo was attentive to the cat’s presence in the scene, making sure it didn’t mysteriously appear or disappear from shot to shot. And yet I wonder whether it ever occurred to him just how distracting a kitten’s desperate attempt to stay balanced upon heaving shoulders might be to viewers. No narrative or performance can possibly compete with an unsimulated battle against centrifugal force and gravity.

Then again, maybe it did occur to Vigo, because when he strives to create a more poetic effect—as when Parlo traverses the length of the barge in her wedding gown—there are no cats in sight. This seems unlikely, given that three of them jump on her the moment her husband lays her down to kiss her; you can even see one following her up onto the barge’s raised deck (or whatever it is) in the previous shot. But the image would be far less dramatic if the attention were being shanghaied by feline movement, and Vigo seems to have understood that and deliberately kept all the cats out of sight. (There aren’t even cats with Simon when she reaches him, and there are always cats somewhere near Simon in this movie.) Likewise, there are no cats roaming around to ruin the emotional integrity of the lovers’ reconciliation (which foreshadows the film’s ending), even though said reconciliation was directly inspired by the dude getting his face clawed up seconds earlier, in the goofiest cat attack this side of Let The Right One In. 

That attack, and the earlier moment in which several cats land on the smooching couple, illustrate what I mean about the other moments functioning as mini-documentaries. In both instances, it’s easy to see that the cats have simply been thrown at the actors from just offscreen. You would have to have never seen a cat before in your life to believe they would make those movements spontaneously. Consequently, those cats are completely uninteresting. They might as well be bricks. In no way do they threaten to distract from what’s happening, because they are what’s happening. (Though that’s only because Vigo cuts away before anyone can look to see what they’ll do now that they’re back under their own power.) If you think about it, this phenomenon isn’t even about animals per se. Imagine a Hollywood movie in which some random civilian—not an extra, but just some person who accidentally wandered onto the set—was clearly visible, and clearly totally unaware of the camera, in the background of a lengthy shot. Would anyone who spotted this intruder be able to wrest their eyes back to Tom Cruise or Sandra Bullock?

So here’s my idea/suggestion/plea: If you’re making a movie you know is likely to be terrible, toss a cat or two into every shot. Don’t write them into the plot; it doesn’t need to be Don Corleone caressing one as visual counterpoint. Just let ’em wander around. That way, when the audience inevitably gets bored, there’s at least something onscreen that’s guaranteed to hold their attention. It might make the actors work a little harder, too. There’s nothing like competing for attention with a creature that just doesn’t give a shit.

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