I’ve been thinking about Jean Vigo’s underwater scenes in Taris and L’atalante. Of all the scenes in his films, I come back to those. I think it’s because water itself holds such meaning in my life.
For Vigo, water seems to function in various ways. It’s a site where the body can be free, liberated, and sensual. Think of swimmer Jean Taris, barely clothed, playing underwater, bubbles streaming from his mouth, a gorgeous smile on his face.
In L’atalante, water represents a connection to the beloved. The new groom jumps into the water because he was told that if you open your eyes underwater, you can see the one you love. His wife has run away. He wants to see her again. So he goes underwater to reconnect with her. The water creates access, a portal to the one who is lost, a way of reaching her.
There’s a ghostliness about these scenes even though the actors in them were alive. The way water reduces bodies to light and shadow and the ethereal.
When I was a kid, I loved swimming. It was the only time I was truly free, my body no longer weighed down. I could do flips and handstands and laps. I could sink to the bottom and hold my breath as long as possible. I could float on top and feel the sun on my skin. It was a magical place–just as it is in Vigo’s films. A place of possibilities, a place of dreams.
I’ve never swam in the ocean. I rarely even got to swim as a child. Because it was a rare experience, I think I cherished it all the more. There was a local public pool that I sometimes went to. A family friend worked at a hotel and we got to use the pool occasionally during the summer. I’d always take goggles so that I could go to the bottom of the pool and then look up and see the sunlight streaming through the surface. I felt suspended in time, fossilized in beauty. The sunlight would make these tessellations on the bottom of the pool. I was mesmerized. I didn’t want to leave the water ever. I hated having to return to the real world. I always wished I had a camera to capture what I saw, what that watery world looked like.
After my father died, the only reprieve I felt from the grief was when I got to swim in the pool at a local hotel. My mom and I scrounged some money from somewhere and went for a few days. I still remember swimming in that pool, floating on top of the water, my arms and legs stretched out. I felt released, reborn. The grief was still there, it’s always there, it’s still there even now, but the water held me and soothed me and gave me a few days of peace. I know I’m not writing it properly. I know you can’t feel what it was like to be inside my body underneath the water, just like you can’t feel the grief that throbbed in my veins and that lives inside me still.
I’m drawn to water and to the lives lost to it. Woolf with the rocks in her pockets in the River Ouse, forcing herself to drown when she could swim, forcing herself into death. Ophelia with her flowers and her soaked skirts, babbling about her dead father, maybe searching for a way to get back to him. Water as life force, water as death force.
And I remember my father in the water, a picture of him on a float, basking in the summer sunshine, so alive and so real. Pictures of me and him at pools or lakes, now only together in photos, forever separated.
I wish I could open my eyes underwater and see him again. I wish he was there, emerging from the depths, surfacing back into life.