L’Atalante: Loving Something We Don’t Like and Dying For Your Art

By  · Published on February 25th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they praise Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante for existing and inspiring, even though at least one of them (it’s Scott) found it lazy and obtuse.

In the #12 movie on the list, a newly married man and woman (Jean Daste and Dita Parlo) make their life on a river barge with a cabin boy and an incredibly creepy old salt called Papa Jules (Michel Simon) . Strangely, floating from port to port is a bit boring for the beautiful bride, and she runs away for the enticements of the big city.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Scott: So I watched L’Atalante for the first time, and I have to admit that I was disappointed. Not just from the promise that this was the current 12th best movie of all time, but simply on a basic level of entertainment and filmic coherence. It was a big surprise.

Does my being surprised surprise you?

Landon: It surprises me that you didn’t immediately want to re-do your honeymoon to better reflect this film.

Scott: Ersh. I like my wife too much for that.

Landon: It’s a difficult film in some ways, and I admit it’s not one of my all-time favorites from this list. But having re-watched it, I do want to defend its incoherence a bit.

Scott: All you really have to say is, “It’s French,” but I’m betting you can go even deeper.

Landon: What struck me the most this time was the fact that it seems to completely lack establishing shots of any sort. Characters seem to move freely through time and space, and we’re forced to assume where they are in relation to one another, which is funny because the majority of the film takes place within the small space of this boat.

It gives the film a almost anarchistic energy that allows it to get away with certain things later on, like that scene where the husband and wife seem to be having sex with each other when they’re not in the same place. I think its incoherence is deliberate.

And yes, French.

Scott: Oh, absolutely. The chaos is clearly purposeful, as are the moments where scenes are organized to mirror one another (like when Jean looks for Juliette in the fog, followed much later by him looking for her in the water).

But, as with all things, there’s a kind of laziness that comes with chaos. You can build something whimsical (like the middle section of Sunrise) without shrugging your shoulders about all your characters’ decisions. Although, that montage sequence where the couple has sex while lying in beds miles apart is pretty damned magical.

Landon: Yeah, I was hoping that meant they were telepathic, and that their heads would explode upon reaching orgasm. But then I remembered…French.

So your problem is that it feels like there wasn’t much underneath the chaos?

Scott: I think that’s right. It felt average. The few imaginative and technically difficult shot sequences it boasted were brought back down to earth by weird logical inconsistencies and a general sense of ennui (see, I can be French too). At its core, I didn’t care at all about Jean or Juliette. They didn’t seem to either.

Landon: Good point. And how much more magical would sequences like the long-distance sex scene be if we did?

Scott: Exactly.

Landon: Also, Pere Jules seems at times to be a direct challenge to the audience’s patience. He seems at first to be a comic foil, but quickly grows into something more chaotic (and at times more interesting, with his cabinet of curiosities) but still very confrontational.

Scott: Which I appreciated. He genuinely made me feel uncomfortable, and Simon’s portrayal is something bizarrely wonderful, but like most every other emotional element here, his potential isn’t ever really utilized for anything. Although I do really want his tattoos.

So if it’s not a particularly good movie, why is one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: Even more so than last week’s film, L’Atalante has a clear influence on later French art cinema.

Truffaut was inspired by this and Vigo’s Zero de Conduite when he set out to make The 400 Blows, and there’s even an award in France given for independent spirit and experimentation since 1951. Which Breathless (a film we’ll be tackling soon) won in 1960.

His work was hated in the 1930s, so this was a postwar resurrection project: Vigo’s work was revisited and beloved by a generation. Thus, he’s been canonized. But I think the important emphasis here is on Vigo’s work, not L’Atalante specifically.

Scott: And the big question: how important is it to keep sacred the early prototypes that would inspire later works of genius?

Landon: I think that the critics’ relationship to L’Atalante is changing, albeit slowly, at least as indicated by the changes in the S&S list. As with Battleship Potemkin, this is a film that used to be in the top 10. I didn’t check on this, but my guess is that (like Potemkin and Man with the Movie Camera), it was simply difficult to have 2 French films from the 1930s (Rules of the Game and L’Atalante) in the top 10 at the same time. L’Atalante fell out of the top spots.

Even though Rules of the Game stands opposite to L’Atalante in terms of its style in many ways.

How much do you think Vigo’s early death has a role in L’Atalante’s status?

Scott: That’s a fascinating question. Not only did he die at age 29, but he did so concurrently with the filming and release of L’Atalante. He had been battling tuberculosis for years, but with filming in the wet cold of French canals, it’s not hard to imagine that making L’Atalante killed him. He literally died for his art.

But we also have to be careful about lionizing him simply because his life and his creative output were cut short. If he had lived, he might have been an even bigger influence or, even crazier, become a success in his own right.

Landon: He’s probably the only director on this list whose entire filmography can be viewed in an afternoon with time to spare. Not only is the idea of dying for your art romantic to an intoxicating degree, but so is the notion of being posthumously appreciated, and having an influence that stands in inverse proportion to actual output.

It’s hard not to get caught up in that, yet I find myself preferring Jean Renoir’s school of French interwar art filmmaking.

Scott: And I’d rather have success while I’m breathing.

Do you think his death helped his legacy with the filmmakers who would become the New Wave?

Landon: I think the content and style have a more palpable influence. You can definitely see Vigo’s chaotic editing style in Breathless, and Zero de Conduite gets an obvious narrative re-working in 400 Blows.

Scott: They saw someone who was not content to do what was expected.

Landon: Exactly. I think the sense of re-discovery is a big part of it: the fact that his films were dismissed and then viewed by a later generation who thought, “Oh, cinema can be this, too?” combined with the fact that a film like L’Atalante has been a decades-long restoration project. The passion around this film is clearer than many of the others we’ve seen, but that makes it all the harder to let the film stand on its own in a timeless way.

Scott: Combined with the poetic injustice of a commercial venture taking over Vigo’s artistic vision and releasing a drastically reduced cut into theaters. That can rally the troops of truth and beauty. You know, I didn’t love it or hate it, but without it, dozens of brilliant movies would not have been made (or been made so daringly well).

So I’d say Vigo accomplished something pretty special here.

Landon: I’d bet my favorite pair of hands in a jar that you’re right.

Scott: I’ll see that, and raise you my creepy puppet conductor.

Be Part of More Movie Discussions

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

An author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don’t cut off any of its heads, we’re trying to work here.