L'Atalante (1934), the second collaboration between experimental French filmmaker Jean Vigo and composer Maurice Jaubert, has become a staple in the cinephile canon. But its profound influence on postwar filmmakers could not have been anticipated at the time of its disastrous initial release. As Vigo lay on his deathbed, the film's producers, finding L'Atalante narratively incoherent, attempted to make it more broadly accessible, replacing parts of Jaubert's score with the popular song “Le chaland qui passe” and renaming the film after the hit tune. These changes subtly altered an important narrative subtext of the film—a reflexive fixation on the recent arrival of synchronized sound film, expressed through a focus on musical playback technologies (phonographs, radios, and music boxes) and their ability to captivate. In this article, through a comparative analysis of scenes from L'Atalante (which has subsequently been restored) and Le chaland qui passe (the only surviving copy of which is housed at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique), I show how the differences between the two versions reflect a general anxiety over the arrival of sound film in France. Vigo's fascination with mediated music and its ability to create a magical cinematic world, and the distributors' attempt to fit the film's music into a commercially successful paradigm, reflect contemporary concerns about the potential impact of mediated sound on French cinema. Through my analysis, I demonstrate how film practitioners grappled with technological changes, using music as a powerful interventional force.
- © 2015 by the American Musicological Society. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Rights and Permissions website, www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp.