In a famous sequence from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Michel Simon’s character, le Père Jules, disrobes before Juliette (Dita Parlo), and in effect makes his tattoos perform for her when he inserts a cigarette into his navel which itself is surrounded by a tattooed face. In this moment, the image of Simon’s body becomes a double inscription of the body, whereby Vigo’s cinema, “reveals itself under the sign of the flesh.”

In what way are these tattoos visible markers of Père Jules’ own history, one that remains otherwise absent in the film narrative? And how and what did his tattoos signify to film spectators in 1934? This talk explores how the cinematographic image can function as a both a multi-faceted repository for human history and an anthropological network of visual and cultural relations. These give voice to muted histories of the French nation including its colonial and penal practices that, in the case of Père Jules, reveal themselves under the sign of his flesh.