Tuesday 26 February 2013

L'Atalante (1934)

I have this gap I need to fill between movies I have seen and movies I have reviewed. This gap is now down to 26 films (not counting all those modern films I have not even gotten to yet) and I am struggling to close it. It has been about a year and a half since I saw them so I need to see them again in order to write some decent comments. Otherwise it just becomes some bland “yeah, I liked this” or “no, this one sucked” comments. Usually these reruns are fun since most of the films are good, but there are also those of them that I did not like very much and I dread having to see them again. “L’Atalante” is one of those.

L’Atalante belongs to my download collection and when I travel it is easier to just watch movies from the harddisk and this one is, well, next in line. I actually bought it on DVD back then, but directly from France and it turned out that the subtitles included were only in French and Italian. Now, I do not speak either so I had to find a download with subtitles I could read and after all that work the film left me rather disappointed.

With those much reduced expectation it may be no wonder that I liked it better second round. Not the movie or story itself, mind you, that is still somewhere between incomprehensible and lame, but some of the characters are very interesting and there are a number of redeeming elements, which I will shortly get back to. If I should sum up the reasons to watch L’Atalante it is a single name: Michel Simon.

The two leads, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) generally annoy me. The story is briefly that they get married and immediately set off on Jean’s barge. When they get to Paris they have a fallout, get separated and then reunited. That is about it. Juliette obviously married Jean as a ticket out of her village to see the world. She is naïve and it is hinted at that she was lured into the marriage by grand promises from Jean. When finally she gets to Paris she is easy prey for the vultures lurking there and seems even to actively seek them out. Jean is a very jealous husband. Now that he has won his wife she is his and his alone and he is prone to violence when he sees his possession being threatened.

So, we see these two people madly in love, then shouting at each other, then having passionate sex, then some more shouting and so on and on. It basically makes me resign and think “whatever”, which is a problem since their relationship is the core of the story.

Instead I found myself enjoying Michel Simon as the rough old sailor Pere Jules. Simon is always a pleasure to watch and this is the best performance I have seen from him. He is grimy and crude and frankly rather disgusting, but gradually we (and Juliette) see sides of him that are both tender and interesting. In his cabin on the boat he has and builds all sorts of paraphernalia and keep countless (and adorable) cats. He at least is very convincing and stays in character throughout. Everything he does is consistent with Pere Jules, tough on the outside, soft on the inside and lonely all over, yet self-reliant.

I also liked the set on the boat. It is always interesting to confine a small group of people in limited space and see what happens. I would say some 70% of the film takes place on the barge and truly there is something romantic about drifting along on the canals from dock to duck.

The most annoying character however is the idiot they meet at the dancehall (Gilles Margaritis). At first I was annoyed with Jean for getting provoked by him but soon I felt like punching his face as well and be cross with Juliette for not seeing him for the scum he is. Sic.

Finally you may notice that they serve Moules et Frittes at the dancehall. That is just delicious and I can recommend that to anybody. The movie however only if you are a diehard Michel Simon fan.


On an entirely different note I am now in Tokyo, Japan, and man, I feel watching Lost in Translation again. So, watch out for that review coming up soon. There may be some location shots included.


  1. After all the hype about this movie (it's almost always on critics' "best ever" lists) I was very underwhelmed by it. And in my case, it was for the reason you liked it some the secome time - Simon. His clowning was amusing at first, but when the movie kept stopping to go back to him so he could do another 5 or 10 minute long schtick that had nothing to do with the plot, it started getting really old for me.

    1. That is curious. The very thing that saves the movie for me, kills it for you. But I suppose that is what makes watcing and discussing films interesting.
      I do not unterstand the hype on that director. Neither of his films on the list are particularly impressive, but critics are fawning over him. I do not get it.

  2. I'm with you on this--simon was the best part of the film for me. I'd have loved to see Jean Vigo make more films, because this was a good start for someone beginning his career. It shows more promise than quality over all, but it shows a lot of promise.

    1. More promise than quality is a good way to put it. Yet I suspect a lot of hype around Jean Vigo as if it was his early death that propelled him into stardom. We will never know what he eventually could have done and I am content to let it rest with that.

  3. Just came here randomly. By the way, half the blog is not in English. Is that a mistake? Maybe it's just my browser.

    I have to say I absolutely love this movie, but I can understand alternate takes. I'm surprised you didn't mention the awesome score. Also, I would say Jean is jealous, but his wife is also around sketchy people, so he might be unusually nervous.

    People like Vigo because dying young after a small and relatively solid oeuvre is the best thing that can happen for you legacy. Look at James Dean or Tupac.

    1. Thank you for dropping by.
      The film titles are in Danish because the book I have is the Danish edition and I think it is curious how the titles are translated. The rest of the Danish stuff is Blogger messing it up. It has decided I am Danish and so keep everything in Danish. I have not gotten around to find a solution to that yet. I appologize for the hassle.

      I like L'Atalante better on second viewing than the first time round and certainly better than Zero de Conduite, but that does not say much. I guess my problem is that the two leads are so passionate and foolish that I just cannot root for them. That is a serious block for me.
      The score I am afraid I do not remember. Maybe I should see it again for that.