L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
In all its strangeness and irrationality, L’Atalante is one of the best movies about romantic love ever made, and one of the best examples in cinema of numerous unresolved contradictions refined into inexplicable perfection: it’s a surrealist piece that never breaks from settings and people that are basically ordinary, a drama that places deep, conflicted human emotions on their deserved pedestal that’s nonetheless funnier and more spontaneous than many comedies, and it’s unmistakably a product of youth and of another time that’s nevertheless startling in its wisdom and prescience.
By default, it seems inefficient to try to place one’s response to this film verbally, and it’s best to initially experience it without those chains attached. But in essence, it’s a lyrical romance set aboard a dodgy shipping vessel about the strikes made by circumstance, jealousy and lust against a new marriage — and love is illustrated in the language of nearly uncontrollable physical need (as opposed to the practicality, irrationality and forgiveness of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise or the verbal sparring of so many Hollywood pictures). It is pure, drunken cinema, with more stunningly beautiful shots and eerily believable moments of undiluted life than can be reasonably counted out — the death of 29 year-old director Jean Vigo prior to its completion, his permanent unawareness of the entire language that would eventually appear in the wake of this film’s rediscovery, only underlines its mysterious, inscrutable sensuality, because it’s a final statement never to be elucidated, almost a missive from the dead. The final cut was not his and the film as it exists is clearly incomplete, full of jump cuts and strange edits and continuity gaffes; but the scrappy context only makes its consistently beguiling nature and frequently jaw-dropping majesty that much more striking, as though it comes about this beauty almost incidentally.
The clearest comparison in terms of the film’s effect on the viewer is Sunrise, another film that defies verbal explanation, another fable about the staggering power of even a conflicted, troubled marriage when feelings bubble to the surface. Whereas Sunrise was a mature work about an experienced couple coping with immature actions, L’Atalante makes no apology for its naivete; its conscience, in the form of a ragged, macho but sexually ambiguous first mate called Père Jules (the dependably versatile Michel Simon, so different here than in La Chienne or Boudu Saved from Drowning), is a man who’s lived a hundred lives in one and has never surrendered to the demoralizing ravages of age, whereas the groom and captain portrayed by Jean Dasté already seems half-dead. Vigo, who didn’t even originate the film’s story (it was foisted upon him after his only other feature, Zéro de conduite, generated controversy), seems to want us to view in Jules what Murnau probably wanted us to view in the mere act, far more slickly depicted, of going into the city and having fun: the radicalism of opening one’s heart to the vastness of the world.
The “story,” such as it is, mostly whisks us through the uncomfortable adjustment of Dita Parlo’s Juliette to the less-than-ideal conditions of married life aboard the barge upon which her husband Jean serves as skipper. Jean is a stodgy bore who barely lives outside of his dull work routine and seems to expect the same of his wife, and flies into a jealous rage when she makes gestures toward living a life of their own; all their relationship really boasts is an obviously mutual level of physical need, manifested beautifully by Vigo in a gorgeous non-sex scene that has them yearning for one another while apart. It’s two people who are too young playing at the lives of the settled, while Jules dramatizes the power in a resistance to settling at all. There’s little reason to expect that the abrupt finale is the prelude to anything but further nastiness and probably an annulment, but that doesn’t make the couple’s closed-off world any less enrapturing; even the moments of disconnection and disappointment, like Juliette’s late nights wishing to be literally anywhere else, have a feeling of importance and ethereal power to them, a “you will remember this” sensation that suggests youth itself. The film senses, even if Juliette doesn’t, how much these growing pains will live strongly and palpably in her dreams and memories. My impulse is to wish that she ran off with the sprightly goofball on the bike we see peddling his wares and trying to persuade her to go to Paris with him (even a fling with the rough and unpredictable but gregarious Père Jules, whose cabin of wonders could inspire affinity in anyone, is preferable to the the uptight, abusive cad Jean), but what can you say? We all know that love puts us on slowly sinking ships and that even those disasters have their moments.
Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman find indelible images everywhere, and toss and discard them unceremoniously, but they are so numerous that repeated encounters with the film are like grabbing at the air for falling meteors. The famous shots of Juliette in her gown aboard the barge at night are only the beginning; the wedding party marching down to the water quite literally so; and on a boat overrun with cats — everywhere, even in the Victrola — the grime is as intoxicating as the beauty and sex hanging over everything. A great deal of the film’s indescribable mood comes from the presence of the cat-adoring Père Jules character, doing tricks with a cigarette in his navel, wrestling with himself, boasting about his past affairs and his dead friend’s hands kept in a jar, playing the accordion and demonstrating a general eagerness and curiosity about everything that demonstrates sensitivity and empathy, for all his drunken outrageousness at times. He’s masculine without becoming toxic or exclusionary, and one of the most memorable characters in any film. The naturalism of Simon’s performance matches well with the unique eroticism of Parlo’s, her facial expressions enough to inspire a book of essays all on their own.
L’Atalante cannot be experienced fully in one viewing, because is so much like a dream and the complete appreciation of it requires a recognition of, for instance, how the curio cabinet lives on in memory after the barge itself seems to fade. You can recognize immediately the unspoken sexuality uncovering itself when Jules and Juliette visit in his cabin, but you cannot completely surrender to your trust in him and to the pure goodness of this moment until you have seen the selfless way he behaves to help the young couple in the final act, even probably (well, definitely) knowing what a mortal fuckup their union is. This dreamlike nature is wholly unforced; everything we see seems like a true event observed closely, but when we recall it later it’s all somehow unreal in a manner separate from its being part of a movie we watched. It’s the sort of film that looks very different after it ends than while it’s in progress. Like day-to-day life, it’s an accumulation of small moments, but it never feels inconsequential, especially on reflection; so much that is unnoticed initially later becomes telling, something to carry with you. It’s billed as the first true work of French poetic realism, but it doesn’t seem to truly fit with the other pictures in the movement, too much of a living work to pin down so carefully. Certainly, however, in its feeling of individualism without forced quirk, of lyricism without pretension, of magic without magic, it achieves so much that we yearn for in movies and in life, and does it deftly, inimitably.