22 January, 2009

Movie Review: L'Atalante (1934)

I saw L'Atalante today, a 1934 French film by director Jean Vigo, who died shortly after its completion. It ranks sixteenth on the TSPDT? list, and frankly I don't have much to say about it.

The short film (85 minutes) tells the story of Juliette (Dita Parlo), a small town girl who weds a barge captain apparently on a whim after a brief romance. Her husband Jean (Jean Dasté) is irritable and jealous yet thoughtful and concerned. They join a sentimental, alcoholic old first mate (Michel Simon) and a teenage cabin boy on their rough and dirty business up and down the rivers on a barge where laundry is done once a year, more or less, clutter and trash abound, and a foggy night can spell imminent disaster.

Juliette longs to see the world, most importantly Paris, but she realizes that barge life will only expose her to riverbanks and seaports. Jean promises a life of love and excitement, and first mate Jules, whose cabin is full of knickknacks collected from around the world--Japanese fans, Canadian postcards, Spanish marionettes, a sailor's hands preserved in formaldehyde--informs her that such an exotic, intriguing life is possible. Captivated by radio reports from Paris, she plans her fashionable debut in big city society.

Her debut, however, is befuddled by a fast-talking swindler, a pickpocket, and a moaning frotteur, and the jealous Jean, vexed by her need for stimulation outside of the barge, disembarks from Paris without her, sending both of them in a romantic tailspin.

A catchy, instrumental theme song plays throughout the film, as well as a predictable yet sweet idea about being able to see the one you love when you submerge your head in water. Dita Parlo is cute, and the film is (overall) realistic and lighthearted, but there's nothing particularly memorable or stunning to merit such high ranking on the greatest films list. Stylistically, the only noticeable characteristic is a gritty preoccupation with disorder and filth. A street vendor has his wares strewn throughout a room, picking them up randomly and offering them for sale. Jules's bedroom is cluttered with arbitrary memorabilia, which Jean tosses about and destroys in one fit of jealous rage. The barge is crawling with wild cats, one of which suddenly gives birth on the newlyweds' matrimonial bed in an opening scene. Paris itself is teeming with overpopulation and industrial mess. Thematically, this concretes that Juliette has not married into a stable domestic life but one of happenstance and chaotic vivacity. Which is cool, I guess; there's a realistic disillusionment, but also an excitement for the moments and feelings reality does have to offer.

So, I liked the movie, and perhaps it'll sink in more later. Sixteenth greatest film? I don't think so.

d/w: Jean Vigo
(Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon)

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