L’Atalante (1934)

brooke I’m not sure whether I enjoyed this movie or not.

casey I…didn’t dislike it? I guess I’m just not sure what to make of it.

brooke L’Atalante is a French film about a newlywed couple, Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté), living on a barge of the same name alongside first mate Père Jules (Michel Simon) and an unnamed cabin boy as they travel between a series of ports and cities while struggling to learn how to live together.

casey That’s a short plot description, but there’s not necessarily a whole lot more to the story. I guess it’s meant to be about people from very different worlds learning the difference between love as infatuation and how it works in real life, but for me it fell flat because I was never sure what was driving any of the characters. For example, at the beginning of the movie, as the wedding train approaches the dock we see in Juliette’s face something like dread or stoic acceptance, but as they set off she’s suddenly happy, so from the outset I was never clear what she expected from this new life. The same goes for Jean, who vacillates between being sweet romantic and a jealous churl, and for Père Jules, who’s sometimes a garrulous buffoon and sometimes a creepy uncle figure. I never really felt like like the film was exploring these people’s natures; instead it’s just disjointed. As the plot progresses things become a bit clearer; beginning with Juliette’s first experience of Paris and her growing dissatisfaction with Jean’s overprotectiveness, which leads to his selfish and impulsive decision to strand her in the city. But even their separation and eventual reunion feels emotionally incoherent.

brooke Their separation is the only part of the movie that interested me, but it mostly feels like a long, drawn-out montage. It’s supposed to be the heart of the film, but I never even sensed that they missed each other. There’s a moment near the end in which Jean jumps into the river and “sees” Juliette, a callback to an earlier scene when she’d mentioned offhandedly that if you look into the water you will see your true love. But even after that revelation Jean isn’t the one who locates Juliette to reunite them!

casey Some of the character interactions are charming, at least, including a funny scene in which a flirtatious Parisian entertainer continually interrupts the couple’s dinner in a way that delights Juliette and infuriates Jean, and another where Père Jules stages a wrestling match with himself to entertain Juliette.

brooke Apparently director Jean Vigo’s original cut of L’Atalante has actually been lost: he died shortly after the film was released, and at some point it was cut by 30 minutes. The version we watched is an attempted but incomplete restoration of the original, which might have contributed to the disjointed feeling.
Either way, Juliette and Jean were confusing, and I kept feeling like Père Jules was one drink away from the movie taking violent and far more tragic turn.

casey Creepy vibes notwithstanding, he’s probably the most interesting character: a loyal friend and former world traveler now living as an eccentric first mate on an obscure shipping barge. I’d watch a movie about him.

brooke As long I don’t have to see him take his shirt off to show his terrible tattoos.

casey Full disclosure: midway through L’Atalante I actually opened to Ebert’s Great Movies page to see what he saw in it, and still I simply failed to connect with the film’s romance the way he did. There are too many emotional gaps, whether from language, time, or an incomplete edit. There are some interesting scenes, but as a whole the movie doesn’t feel essential.

brooke I can see some of what Ebert liked, but I don’t think it merits such lofty praise. Maybe it will stick with us in an unexpected way, but I don’t see that happening.

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