more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

2015 Movie Challenge: L’Atalante

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24/52: A movie with a wedding in it 

L’Atalante begins where most romances end: the wedding.  The beautiful young couple walks, arm-in-arm, through the streets of her village, and the looks on their faces seem to say it all: what happens after “happily ever after”?

Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) are about to find out.  As they make their way to the river, where Jean’s boat (the titular barge, L’Atalante) awaits them, the wedding party trailing them buzzes with commentary from her family: she’s never left the village before, but of course, she has to be “different” – and leave everything she’s ever known, just to live with her new husband on his boat.  As L’Atalante pulls away, the villagers simply stand there, staring, having ceased wishing the newlyweds well.  L’Atalante’s crew consists of a first mate, Père Jules (Michel Simon), and a cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) – and half a dozen or so stray cats, which Jules collects.  They try to welcome Jean and his new wife (they call her la patronne) with a song and a bouquet of flowers, but that doesn’t go quite as well as planned, either.  In other words: the marriage is off to a pretty typical start.

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The story is as simple as a fairy tale: Jean and Juliette navigate the choppy waters of the first weeks and months of their life together.  They love each other madly, but they don’t really know each other.  She’d never left her village before, and he’d never lived with a woman before.  Roger Ebert’s review sums up the thesis of L’Atalante in its first sentence: “To live happily ever after with the one you love, you must be able to live with them at all.” Jules complains to the cabin boy that he’s tired of the skipper and la patronne, always “smoochin’ and squabblin’.” They fight, they make up; they fight some more, they make up; and all of this on a narrow little barge.

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L’Atalante feels like a fairy tale, and looks like a fairy tale, but that belies the stark emotional reality of Jean and Juliette.  As dreamy as the film feels, it’s a bittersweet little story about what happens when you test the durability of true love everlasting.  Jean has lived as a sailor for years; honeymoon or none, he has work to do, and he grows increasingly annoyed by Juliette’s naïveté and boredom on the boat.  Juliette has never been out in the world before, and she grows frustrated with Jean’s lack of imagination and with his apparent insensitivity.  She wants to go see Paris; he wants to keep up with their shipping schedule.  She’s fascinated by Jules’s collections of curios from his world travels; he mistakes her fascination for flirting, and destroys his gruff first mate’s priceless collection of keepsakes.  Again: probably standard stuff for the early stages of a marriage in which the newlyweds have nothing in common but their attraction to each other.  I don’t mean to sound flippant or blasé about that, however.  These little quarrels and misunderstandings lead each of them to wound the other.  She is charmed by a peddlar’s flattery, and seems to be on the point of grabbing her bag when he offers to take her away to Paris that very night.  It injures Jean’s masculine pride, and he spends the evening sulking.  She then decides to go ashore to see the sights herself – and he orders Jules to move onward down the river, abandoning Juliette.  She injures him because she doesn’t know any better.  He injures her because he values his own pride more than her happiness, safety, comfort, etc.  It hurts to watch.

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The starkness of the emotional reality is sweetened considerably by the potency of Jean and Juliette’s passion for each other.  During their happy moments together, they can hardly keep their hands off each other: he whispers into her ear, and it’s clear from her delighted smile that he’s describing what he plans to do to her later.  When they’re separated, in an extraordinarily erotically charged sequence, each reacts – alone, in bed – to the other’s remembered touch.  It’s heady stuff for 1934, even in France.

Perhaps the most famous image from L’Atalante comes from a breathtaking (literally, for Jean) underwater scene.  Early in the film, Juliette tells Jean an old folktale from her village: you see the face of your beloved underwater – which was how she knew he’d be the one, even before she met him.  Jean claims he doesn’t see her – until he’s left her, and he falls into an abysmal depression.  He leaps overboard into the river, swimming desperately, hoping to see her – and there she is: smiling, laughing, welcoming, radiating love and joy.

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It’s a beautiful movie, and tremendously affecting – but it left me feeling quite misty, I must say.  All that beauty belies the sad reality of a man who would abandon his wife to teach her a lesson, and a wife who would take him back afterwards.  It would be lovely to believe that they work out their differences after they’re reunited, but I rather doubt it.  Jean Vigo, the writer/director, was dying while he made L’Atalante.  He had tuberculosis, and he was so ill during the shoot (which began in November, and lasted through a terribly cold winter) that he was forced at times to direct from a stretcher.  Maybe that has nothing to do with the film itself – but I felt such a deep undercurrent of sadness, running steadily through all 89 minutes, that I can’t help seeing an even more poignant sense of doom in Jean and Juliette’s little story.  When they’re apart, it’s as if they’re each newly widowed (or widowered); they don’t behave as two lovers who’ve just had a quarrel, but as two mourners who’ve just lost forever the one person they loved the most.  Even if their marriage were smooth sailing, even if they understood and loved each other perfectly, even if they never quarreled, there would still be that final separation, that final rupture.  It’s heartbreaking.  Perhaps it would be there even if Vigo had gone on to live a long and happy life – but I think it’s extra sharp because he knew it was coming for him and his wife. (And indeed, he died a few weeks after L’Atalante premiered; Lydou, his wife, tried to throw herself out a window immediately thereafter.)

Most of what I’d heard about L’Atalante before seeing it was that it was – in Criterion’s words – “an unassuming tale of conjugal love [that] becomes an achingly romantic reverie of desire and hope.” It’s that, of course.  But it’s more than that as well.  It is also, and perhaps most of all, to borrow (as usual) from my Volodya, about “the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.”

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2015 by and tagged , , , .
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