Sunday, December 26, 2010


     A young newlywed couple, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), take off on Jean's barge for their their honeymoon. They are accompagnied by two other crew members--a young boy and the jolly old Pere Jules (Michel Simon)-- and about a dozen cats. The wife gets fed up with the cramped space, her husband's jealousy, and a life-style she's not accustomed to, and leaves the boat to explore Paris on her own. Jean gets angry and sails off without her, before realizing how much he misses her. In the end they reunite.
     L'Atalante hasn't earned its place high up in the list of the all time greatest movies through any narrative complexity. There's nothing incredible about the dialogue, and the technical aspects of the film aren't particularly impressive. But Jean Vigo's first and only feature length film (he's also known for the 1933 short Zero de conduit) has survived 80 years and a studio hatchet job that cut it by a third to emerge as an enduring masterpiece. It's a film that defines the "poetic realism" of pre-war French cinema, and one that laid the ground for the creative freedom of the New Wave. Just as Vigo was dying of tuberculosis at 29 (three weeks after the film's premiere), a 14 year old Truffaut was discovering images and emotions as he had never seen them before in L'Atalante.
     Now that I've gotten the mandatory history and plot synopsis out of the way, I'll think I'll take this review down a slightly different path than usual. Rather than attempt an objective analysis of the film, I'll go through some of the impressions I had while watching it. It's not that the movie is "untouchable" in any way, or that there I have any conflicting opinions about it. I just think it might be more useful to abandon any pretensions as an authority on L'Atalante, and admit that I'm more like the young Truffaut. The main difference here, however, is that I already know what reputation the film has--I already know that what I'm watching is supposed to be a masterpiece. And I'd rather not write a review giving the same old reasons why the film is seen as a masterpiece.
     What I really am is a judge; while I watch, I have to decide if the film impresses me, if it still resonates, if I'm entertained by it, and whether it stands the test of time and deserves its reputation. It's also valuable for me to go through what I was thinking at each moment, so that I can find what discoveries are really mine, and record and remember them. After all, at some point, I'll run out of classics that I'll be able to see for the first time.

L'Atalante opens with a wedding and a first dose of physical comedy as pere Jules knocks a bottle of champagne off the docks and into the river. First thought-- I can't understand what the hell any of these people are saying. I'd like to blame it all on microphones and not my French, but a couple of people around me were laughing at the dialogue throughout the whole movie. Peu n'importe. The movie was made early after the transition from silent to sound, and everything that needs to be known is there in the characters' faces or in their gestures. As for all the hilarious puns I missed, I think these people would find anything funny. The French, after all, do love Jerry Lewis. Actually, I don't even actually know who Jerry Lewis is, I realize then. In fact, I had learned just the other day that Quenting Tarantino is a huge fan of Jerry Lewis.

One of the first scenes on the boat  has Jean and Juliette sprawled out on the deck. He tries to embrace her, but she pushes him away. Interesting way to start I honeymoon. There may or may not have been a cat that climbed on top of her. In fact, cats are everywhere, much to the annoyance of Juliette. They lie on beds and fall out of closets. At one point Jean threatens to throw them in the river, but Pere Jules will have none of it. Other things: the camera work seems quite primitive, and even shaky in spots. The editing is far from precise, although how much of this is deliberate, I don't know. Perhaps Vigo wanted to give an organic feel to the movie. Much of the first half of the movie is fairly uneventful, and the daily life on the boat is a little tedious for everyone involved. It's no wonder that Juliette wants to escape.

     The first great scenes (in my opinion) come in about a third of the way through the film (I think), and both involve Pere Jules. He's an ugly old fellow, and everything he says is at completely unintelligible, but probably insane. A lot of the times he's singing or dancing or getting drunk. His first moment of glory comes when he shows Juliette that he can sew. They both find this amusing, so he decides to pick up a dress and embrace his feminine side. He twirls around with the dress on and sings and both him and Juliette laugh at his crazy antics. It's a scene filled with good humor and manic joy and one that plays like a "dense daydream" (a fitting description of the movie--I forget where I read it).
    In the next one, the relationship between Pere Jules and Juliette gets a little weirder. He shows her around his cabin, pointing out his photographs of nude women and the various knick knacks that he collects. She musses his hair up. He takes off his shirt to show her his tatoos. Waoh! Is there flirtation going on between the young newlywed and the salty old seaman. I'm guessing that Juliette was just trying to find a way to amuse herself--her intentions seem harmless enough--but Jean definitely doesn't think so. He comes in and immediately starts to throw around Pere Jules's precious china, completely trashing the place. But what makes this eruption interesting is that the characters don't make that big a deal about it, which is not to say they're detached and uninterested. The event is portrayed in a very matter of fact way--it just happens. Even loving couples get angry and make mistakes.

Seems that Juliette isn't quite done making mistakes. She and Jean leave the boat to spend some time in a bar, and there, she falls under the influence of a suave magician who whisks her away from her husband for some dirty dancing. As can be predicted, Jean gets angry, and what follows is the movie's one and only fight scene. A pretty funny wild one at that. After this comes most of the actual "plot" of the movie, with Juliette escaping from the barge to go to the city and Jean getting frustrated. I note that the cinematography has become much more interesting, with ship yards and factories forming an industrial background that contrasts with the small scale of the relationship that we're studying.

Up to this point, there hasn't been much that's been immediately impressive or arrestingly cinematic. Of course, L'Atalante isn't that kind of movie, but I do have to find some reason to praise it. Otherwise my review for one of the most influential movies of all time would have to be summed up by "nice enough, but a little boring." Luckily, I get that reason; there are three or four scenes near the end of the film that surprise me. Jean and Juliette's separation doesn't offer much suspense, but it does add quite a bit of emotional and dramatic tension tension.

In the first great scene, Jean's anguish starts to kick in as he reaches the end of the river and stares at the vast expanse of empty sea in head of him. He climbs down on to the beach and runs until the waves touch his feet. And then he turns back, exhausted and scared. A crowd gathers around him, saying, "just another sailor gone mad." And I say, "400 Blows, 400 Blows!" This is exactly the final scene where Antoine runs up to the water (his ends just at the moment when he turns around and stares into the camera). I deserve a cookie. It's a beautiful image. I can see why Truffaut felt the need to pay hommage.

Great scene number two-- underwater photography! Jean's anguish and longing keeps building, and he eventually dives into the river (partly out of hopelessness and partly in reference to an earlier scene where Juliette claimed you could see your lover if you opened your eyes underwater). And when he's under, the camera goes with him, and everything in the scene is suspended and weightless and fluid. It's arrestingly cinematic. I could have done with out the obvious dream-like superimpositions of Juliette, but the scene isn't overplayed. It even ends with comedy; Pere Jules and the boy are looking over the edge of the barge trying to find where they believe Jean to be drowning, but he has already climbed out of the water and is coming up behind them, curious to find out about what's catching their attention. In Vigo's world, sadness and joy coexist.

3rd great scene--mutual masturbation! The longing reaches it's peak; Jean and Juliette are in separate beds in separate cities, and both are despondent. And then they start to touch themselves, imagining that the other person is there with them. Jean cups his own breasts and then we cut to Juliette reaching towards hers. I don't think this scene needs an analysis. One word will do: incroyable!

And then the last scene, with Jean and Juliette together again at last. Do they run towards each other for a passionate embrace? Does the camera close in on their interlocking faces? Does the movie end with one of those heart thingies (you know what I mean)? No to all of the above. Instead, they take a few slow wary steps towards the other. Perhaps there is even a vestige of anger left in each of them. But nothing else besides there love matters as they grab each other and fall, and their two bodies end up crumpled onto the deck (this mirrors that first scene on the boat). In L'Atalante love is imperfect; but if passion is impossible without jealousy, tedium, annoyance at one's significant other, the moments of pure ecstasy make it all worth it. And then, a final aerial shot over the boat, where the characters are trapped and happy, and then over the river that flows on and on.

still have no idea what this was about


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