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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

L'Atalante (1934)

L'atalante 00

I'd heard a lot of praise regrading L'Atalante, and after having finally viewed it, let me tell you, I was terrifically underwhelmed. I’m not certain as to why, specifically, but it’s probably because I knew nothing of it, have never heard of the director before viewing the film (Jean Vigo, who only directed 3 short films prior to L’Atalante and then passed away due to tuberculosis), and have heard for many years that it’s one of the greatest, most magical films ever made.

I watched the twice in a row; once as is (source: Criterion Collection Blu-ray), and the second time with a commentary track by Michael Temple, author of “Jean Vigo”. I am still wondering what the film truly has to offer a cinephile such as myself and perhaps I will educate myself further as I write this film review.

The story is short and simple, almost too simple: Juliette (Dita Parlo), a country girl, marries Jean (Jean Dasté) and they move in together onto his barge. There he lives and works with an older man, Père Jules (Michel Simon) and a younger boy who’s not very important except to provide some comic relief, although too brief. Père Jules takes all of the credit for being the entertaining oddball and Simon’s performance is the best performance in the film.

Juliette soon grows bored with living on the barge and when she hears news that they’re approaching Paris, she wants to go to the city and have a great time. The scheduled trip is ruined because of Père Jules’ drunken nature and at another evening, when everybody’s asleep, Juliette sneaks off the barge alone. Jean figures this out the next morning and decides, angrily, to leave without waiting for Juliette. The barge leaves Paris and the devastation on Juliette’s face as she realizes that her newly wedded husband had left her stranded with barely any money and in a strange city is quite affecting. Alas, that is during the final 27minutes of the film. The final happenings in the film should have been the core, the heart and soul of the second act but were left for the last little bit of the film. So one question that still remains in my mind is this: why isn’t this also a short film? It could easily have been 60 minutes, tops, and still would have conveyed the same story and had the same impactful third act.

After a few days, if not weeks, Jean begins to lose his mind. He is staring off to nowhere but is still able to listen and react. And while he eventually, desperately tries to find his wife again, Juliette finds lodging in the city and a small paying job. But leave it to Père Jules to know exactly where she is and he does indeed swoop in and save the day.

The filmmaking goes for realism; having shot the film mostly on the barge and in terrible December/January weather (ironically what caused Vigo’s tuberculosis to flare and eventually destroy him), it pulls audiences out of traditional gorgeous cinematography that up until that time had utilized heavy lights, sound stages, and Vaseline on the camera lens (in order to provide a shimmering, soft look), and into a more realistic looking and feeling film. It works as a sort of quasi-documentary, depicting the life of those living and working on a barge all around Paris but ultimately it doesn’t offer the viewer a coherent, traditional film.

Perhaps I was looking forward to watching a French silent classic film that delivered a powerful story and conveyed it with outstanding performances but instead watched a film depicting a realistic look onto what it’s like to live on a barge; oh, and then there’s a bit drama at the end. Also, perhaps it was my fault for not researching the film thoroughly (while avoiding spoilers) before watching it. I blame myself for not loving it and I don’t know why but I don’t really care much for it, either.

Stylistically, Jean Vigo was definitely out there; his filmmaking style was unused before and after the film (for a good couple of decades) and was picked up quickly during the French New Wave; mostly Truffaut fell in love with it immediately after, sort of, accidentally seeing it for the first time during the early to mid-1950s. He, Godard, Bresson, and a few others are responsible for the French New Wave movement that impacts our films even today and it’s safe to say that L’Atalante had something to do with their unique sense of filmmaking; although Bresson was still a more traditional filmmaker and I prefer him to the others specifically for that reason.

L’Atalante can be seen as an important film and even though I don't like it, I can see it really is. But I don’t like it. I found most of it uninteresting and when the going got good, there was little left to the film. It doesn’t tell a story in the traditional sense and it’s not difficult for me to claim that it doesn’t tell much of a story in general. And that’s what mostly annoyed me about the film.

Here are three examples that you, the reader, can ponder on after reading this review:

1) Take notice of the famous quote (that I utilize as a code of conduct ‘til today) “when you have a good screenplay you have a good film”. L’Atalante could probably have been shot without a script because the story wasn’t nearly as important as the atmosphere and cinematography.

2) Take a look at the film Soy Cuba (aka I Am Cuba, 1964). It's a cinematographer’s dream and one of the most beautiful looking and impossibly shot films ever made. It doesn’t contain any expository dialogue and through its breathtaking images alone it manages to tell a story that’s about a specific time and a place.

3) Now take a look at F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Clocking in at 90 minutes (most versions do), it tells the character driven story of an aging hotel doorman who loses his job due to his age, is replaced by a much younger man, and almost loses his sanity over the fact that he’d been routinely doing the same thing for many decades and had lost his job and routine simply because he got old. Its key ingredient, aside from the fact that it stars the great Emil Jannings, is the fact that it’s first film to be shot without using a single intertitle (for those new to films, it’s when you have text written on the screen for a silent film that’s used to “make characters talk”). It’s a 90 minute, character driven film that tells a story without using any words and has beaten the test of time. So why couldn’t I feel the same about L’Atalante?

Perhaps it's too experimental of a film and I wasn’t subconsciously ready for the experience. Perhaps I have, honestly watched too many films and have grown to prefer a certain type of recognizable routine within them. Perhaps it’s actually not a very good film in which its fans confuse filmmaking techniques with overall filmmaking. What I’m saying is that my reason for beliving L’Atalante to be a weak film is currently inconclusive and that maybe, in the near of far future, I will have an answer. I will revisit the film again, several times, and will probably grow to like aspects of it more than the whole. Maybe I will, one day, simply enjoy it or, maybe even love it.

I was in my early '20s when I'd watched Blade Runner (1982) for the first time. My first encounter with the film was the Director’s Cut (superior to the European and original theatrical cuts) and I found it to be dull and pretentious, and I was mostly bored. I didn’t grasp the concept of the depressing situation of being a replicant because I wasn’t paying attention and thanked the heavens that the film was a cheap purchase. Fast forward, roughly, a year and it’s now one of my favourite films of all time; second only to Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I find it a brilliant film; gorgeously shot; beautiful in concept and execution; and a film that I revisit once or twice a year. I own the awesome Blu-ray briefcase edition (what with all the knickknacks: the origami unicorn, conceptual drawings, a hologram, and a toy model of the police hover-car) and perhaps I will feel that way about L’Atalante one day.

L'atalante 01

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