I watched L’Atalante out of order from the List’s chronology, about ten titles late, and so I’d seen another couple French movies before getting to it and I can say with confidence that this one feels the Frenchiest. Partly because there’s a romantic portrayal of Paris and of troubled and impetuous young lovers (what I for some reason feel, without precedent, is a very Parisian-sort of romance) but also because it doesn’t seem like a whole lot happens in this movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because the fact that so little is happening seems to be part of the point. We’re exploring how this young couple feel about each other. Seems like a solid way to study that relationship is to see how they amble into the depths of one another when they’re trapped in close quarters with nothing to stimulate or distract them.
Anyway. I talked recently with Marianne – whom I dated informally for a while and then fell for and who now lives in NYC – over a beer and she told me with friendly ease, and with a considerate lack of detail, about a six-month affair she’d just ended with a married man. Said that she’s mostly dating women now. And meanwhile my jaw is locked and I’m sipping my beer in defiance of the impulse to chug and throw it – but I was also really glad that our friendship is such that we can discuss these things. That sounds sarcastic, but it’s probably not.
L’Atalante is about these young newlyweds who live together on the eponymous ship, to which the groom serves as skipper. They have a nice time together for the first half of the movie, not much happens, but then they dock in Paris and Dita Parlo, our female lead, is ecstatic, wants to explore, and so she and the hubby go out for a good time. One thing leads to another. Parlo is charmed by a huckster/magician/vagrant who lures her (pun!) away from her husband to explore the city, and said husband returns to the boat and paces the deck. Frustrated, hurt, he unmoors and leaves her there in the city by herself. They separate in this awful way and, in accordance to formula, remain separated until the film’s end. Both of them, alas, have realized how much they need each other.
So yeah it’s a little formulaic but it’s also special int hat it feels, in terms of narrative, like the movie is meandering along in the same pleasant way that Parlo is strolling through Paris, as the boat bobs through its waters.
The film is directed by Jean Vigo and, remembering it fondly, it’s another movie that, as with Boudu Saved from Drowning, I admire more than enjoy. It feels intelligent, passionate, mature; but, finally, it just isn’t much fun. That intelligence and stuff eclipses the entertainment aspect isn’t grounds for telling you not to see it. That’s just me talking from the 85th movie on the List, maybe moving too quickly and wearing myself thin, hoping, more than usual, to be reeled in with comedy, action, suspense and histrionic acting.