TSPDT 1-18: L'Atalante (1934) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

TSPDT 1-18: L’Atalante (1934)

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I'm starting a new project that will take me at least through next year by going through the films I have not seen of They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is number eighteen, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante.

1. Citizen Kane (Like) - The film so good it's given us an exhausting comparison to films not named Citizen Kane even outside cinema. Citizen Kane remains a propulsive steamroller of style while creating the eternally young myth of auteur perfection in Welles.

2. Vertigo (Like) - One of the benefits of going through this list will be filling in my Hitchcock blank spaces. Blissfully, Vertigo's alternately nightmarish and hypnotic presentation of desire, fear, and obsession haunts and thrills in equal measure.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Like) - Discussed at this link.

4. The Rules of the Game (Like) - Renoir is a filmmaker I came to gradually, needing to see the goofy Boudu Saved from Drowning and Grand Illusion before returning to The Rules of the Game. The second time through its gentle humanism and dense storytelling riveted me.

5. Tokyo Story (Like) - The only Ozu I've seen (and something I look forward to correcting). Tokyo Story is heartbreaking in its low-key poeticism, letting the relative peace of each composition settle in before the inevitable march of time and increasing callousness of the children send their elders off into the abyss.

6. The Godfather (Indifference) - Some films, like Citizen Kane, survive the way pop culture has integrated almost every scene into various works of art. Not The Godfather, where Brando's mushmouthed performance and dreadfully slow pace sapped my interest in watching the others for some time.

7. (Like) - In truth, there are better films exploring the space of imagination and memory than Fellini's. But that doesn't stop from being a lot of playful fun with a touch of melancholy and inventive camerawork to maneuver around tech limits at the time.

8. Sunrise (Like) - Thankfully, I rarely encounter people who resist watching films not made in the last ten years. If I ever do, I'd find a way to quickly put Murnau's Sunrise on. One of the most gorgeously shot films ever made with timeless romantic tension.

9. The Searchers (Indifference) - The beginning and end of The Searchers is ambiguous American filmmaking at its best. The middle is a plodding western I could do without.

10. Seven Samurai (Like) - Discussed at this link.

11. Apocalypse Now (Like) - Not the best of the Vietnam films, but the one that takes the most daring creative steps in putting us in the maddening cycle of violence that seems without end.

12. Singin' in the Rain (Like) - What a dazzler made from spare parts with its tongue in its cheek and its heart in the heavens. Brilliant physical comedy from Donald O'Connor, endless enthusiasm from Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly's carefree dance with the camera and rain, and hearing Jean Hagen's voice for the first time. Singin' in the Rain is truly magical.

13. Bicycle Thieves (Indifference) - File Italian neorealism under "not my thing". I'm open to that changing over the course of this list, but Bicycle Thieves left me cold rather than invested.

14. Battleship Potemkin (Indifference) - See above. I will not discount Eisenstein's importance on cinematic craft and theory, but this was a chore to get through outside the terrifying Odessa Steps sequence.

15. Taxi Driver (Like) - Not my favorite Scorsese but damn close. The bitter loneliness of Travis Bickle led to one of the most misapplied quotes in cinematic history. But the film itself with its hellish streets, subtle racism, and threat of misogynistic violence remains painfully relevant today.

16. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Like) - I didn't realize my copy of The Passion of Joan of Arc had an accompanying musical score because I was so spellbound by Joan's torment at the hands of men committing venial sins. Sunrise may be the better "gateway" picture into early cinema, but this is arguably the first fully transcendent spiritual experience film could provide.

17. Breathless (Like) - I have a love/meh relationship with Godard. Breathless glided over me the first time through. Then I felt the urge to watch it again. And again. And again. By my fourth or fifth time I realized Godard's effortless cool and metatextual vision hooked me deep.

18. L'Atalante -

L'Aatalante took aim and struck mightily against my Achilles Heel - sincerity.  Not sincerity stewed in melancholy (though there's a helping of that), nor sincerity with the easy gloss of sentimentality (dash of this as well), but sincerity through the weathered emotions of a man past his prime trudging himself up from his depression to help two lovers find their way.  Jean Vigo willed himself through his final days to make L'Atalante, and it's hard not to sense his feelings on his imminent death tied with the Jules (Michel Simon), the first mate who's seen it all but has little to call his own.

I could make the visual argument that Jules' story runs parallel to that of the just-married Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté) if not for one curious shot during L'Atalante's opening scenes. Jules leads the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) by the hand to prepare a warm reception for the newlyweds.  Despite Jules' dedication to the task at hand, Vigo halts the momentum to allow time for Jules to say a quick prayer at the church.  It's the first of many time Jules sneaks off to try and have a life of his own before his duties put him back where he's supposed to be.Jules is the man we primarily see the events of L'Atalante's through, and Simon's performance is stunning.  I initially, and to my shame, thought that Jules was a bit touched in the head as he dragged the cabin boy by the hand and insisted on flowers being arranged a certain way.  What Simon does with Jules is crucial to keeping L'Atalante together, playing Jules with just enough self-awareness to realize the off-putting effect he has on some people while being just oblivious enough to be happier that one of his cats gave birth than the newlyweds arriving on the ship.

Listen to Simon as he uses Jules' semi-awareness of how others see him to save Jean's job at the end.  It's a masterful bit of distraction as Simon staggers his words out delicately, letting his voice drift just enough to show that the problems on the L'Atalante aren't just due to Jean's depression, and planting the suggestion that maybe Jean has more troubles with his crew than his captaining.  It's a selfless bit of deception from Jules, and offered at the feet of a man who's done little to deserve it throughout L'Atalante.

The most fragile bits of magic in L'Atalante revolve around Jules and his loneliness.  Jean and Juliette wrestle with one carrying the other on their back only for Jean to return and begin wrestling with himself while recalling the greatness of the match he witnessed.  Vigo cuts slowly between the couple and Jules, giving the effect that Jules is wrestling with a ghost.  I feel the hurt in Jules voice when he realizes the couple have left him, but that does not compare to the hurt in L'Atalante's centerpiece.

Jules, after warming to Juliette, takes her through a tour of his private collection.  The result could have come straight out of a film by Jean Cocteau, with unusual and simple instruments appearing in and out of the frame in Jules' cramped living space.  The most lovely shot is in a pair, with Juliette playing with an instrument that seems to drift into the frame as Jules "conducts" his treasures with a puppet.  Jean's insecurities drive him to break many of Jules' treasures, and the heartbreak results when Jules laments his own luck instead of taking it back out on Jean.  I often think of the holy fool, he who shares his wisdom and strength with the mocked and profane, which Jules embodies wonderfully by sticking up for Jean when Jean's mocked as, "another drunken sailor."Even if I'm not as enamored with Juliette and Jean, Vigo still has his hands on the earth and heart in the stars when crafting their scenes together.  The wedding march magically seems to cover miles from elaborate cityscapes before coming to rest against gradually flattened landscape.  There's one corker of a shot that embraces the uncertainty of Juliette in her future as she moves on deck against the motion of the L'Atalante in a feeble attempt to match pace with the grander ship passing by in the background.

Juliette and Jean are foolish in their own ways that don't distinct L'Atalante from other romances.  Their reunion is an open question of how long they'll really make it together.  It's Jules' sadness, his quiet acknowledgement of how others see him, and his continued efforts to please Juliette and Jean that makes L'Atalante transcendent.  Even if Jules goes to the grave before them maybe they'll learn from Jules' most heartfelt and strange possession - a jar of preserved hands.  He loved his best friend enough to keep some a reminder of him always.  It's unusual, a bit morbid, but quietly wonderful.  A fitting image to keep in my heart of L'Atalante.

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L'Atalante (1934)

Directed by Jean Vigo.
Screenplay written by Jean Vigo and Albert Riéra.
Starring Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, and Jean Dasté.

Posted by Andrew

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