Of the various films I watched over the last two weeks a number seemed to be significantly concerned with sound. I watched Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a fully integrated soundtrack of sounds and music by Toru Takemitsu. I saw Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, with its two separate scores – one created for the British release by Benjamin Frankel and one for the USA by Franz Waxman. And there was L’Atalante.
Made by Jean Vigo in 1934 I had never considered this to be a film ‘about’ sound…maybe writing here has made me tune into these things in a more concentrated way. The story deals with the marriage of a young barge captain (Jean, played by Jean Dasté) to an innocent country girl (Juliette, Dita Pardo) and their subsequent travails as they argue, separate and re-unite. The narrative is beautifully simple and moving but it is also about modernity (the pull of the big city) and about a fragile way of life. Juliette is charmed by a pedlar who offers her an illicit trip to Paris and soon after she goes off alone to see the city. On her return the barge has sailed and she has to try to make her own way.
Music and sound thread in and out of the story throughout. The opening scene as the couple walk from the church is marked by both snatches of music and the sounds of the canal. Bells, clangs and whistles are a recurring theme in the soundtrack. Even the pedlar/one-man-band jangles as he runs off after trying to seduce Juliette. But Juliette and Jean are characterized largely by silence. He is dumbfounded and she is awestruck.
The eccentric mate (Père Jules, Michel Simon) who acts as a foil to the starry-eyed lovers has an exotic collection picked up on his travels. In one scene he shows Juliette the objects he keeps in his cabin and the sound of the music boxes merges into the music of an automaton conductor. He shows her his gramophone but ‘it’s broken…needs some work’. In fact he has already been seen examining a record offered by a passing junk man…looking closely at the grooves as if he could summon sound out of them. Then, later, he is seen running his fingers around a record and the sound of the accordion is heard…it is, of course, the cabin boy playing a trick but he says: ’…laugh, but there are things as weird as playing a record with a finger…’. And magically this seems to fix the gramophone as it now works and is used in a parade around the deck of the barge in an attempt to cheer up the despondent captain.
Père Jules decides that he must go and search for Juliette in Paris if the captain is to be saved. He walks by the ‘Palace Chanson’ where music comes from a gramophone horn in the street (visually echoing the one back in the barge) and realizes this is where he will find Juliette. She is inside listening to songs on a proto-jukebox as if, like Jules, she too had been craving the sound of the record and the gramophone all along. As Juliette steps down into the cabin there is the sound of a single bell and a whistle welcoming her back.