Sunday, March 2, 2014
As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.
One of the pleasures -- some might say frustrations -- of perusing Sight & Sound's list of the greatest movies of all time, replenished every ten years on the 2's, is finding highly ranked films you've never heard of. If you just want to discover great new movies, it's a pleasure. If you want to imagine yourself a well-watched cineaste, it can be a frustration.
Me, I tend a little bit toward the frustration end of the spectrum, in part because I have this suspicion that there are certain movies people have decided are great because they're suitably obscure and serve as an emblem of those people's refined tastes in cinema. Put another way, I like to think that the films that are this worth knowing about are films that I should already know about. Those who vote in the Sight & Sound poll may just want to show everyone how discriminating they are, how far from the mainstream they stray.
So this is how I came to Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, the highest-ranked title in the 2012 poll that I had never heard of before the poll. Vigo's 1934 film was a staggering #12 overall, continuing to rise (it was #17 in 2002), and destined for the top ten in 2022 if the current trend continues. My reasoning was, "If this movie is so great, why hasn't anyone ever pushed it in front of me as something for me to taste -- or even mentioned that it existed?"
I was determined to find out.
L'Atalante doesn't require a lengthy plot synopsis. The title is the name of the boat that two newlyweds ride up river as a kind of working honeymoon, headed for Paris immediately following their nuptials. The captain, Jean (Jean Daste), has just married Juliette (Dita Parlo) in her village, and they are joined on their voyage by two crewmen (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebevre). Their voyage is not marked so much by the beats of a traditional narrative story, but by a number of occurrences. For example, Jean grows jealous when he believes that the crewman Pere Jules (Simon) is flirting with his wife, and there are also lots of cats around. If this seems like something of an uncharitable accounting of the film's story, there's a purpose to it.
Upon arriving in Paris, Jean's jealousy issues compound when a street peddler tries to get Juliette to come away with him, and Juliette, seeking to explore a Paris Jean seems unable or unwilling to show her, secretly leaves the ship on her own. To explain too much more of what happens would start to reveal parts of the movie that traditionally do not come up in a review.
It didn't surprise me to learn that L'Atalante was poorly received at the time of its release. I often think there's something to be said for these initial reactions. If a movie fails to entertain or captivate, that should be immediately evident, and the passage of time should not do anything to change that computation. If a movie is dramatically inert, eventually reconsidering its context and historical importance should not significantly ameliorate that problem.
So you can see that I align myself with the critics who initially rejected L'Atalante, but I have until now only hinted at why.
For starters, L'Atalante could have been made five years earlier for how closely it resembles a silent film. This is not a slam on silent films, of course, only an indictment of this particular film's sophistication in a rapidly changing industry. The other two films I've seen from 1934 -- Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and the best picture winner It Happened One Night -- are both significantly more polished than L'Atalante. In defense of Vigo's film, I am referring specifically to audio sophistication. Some of what Vigo is doing with the camera is far more advanced, but the near indifference to the audio presents itself as a distraction. (I suppose I must also admit that those two films benefited from Hollywood budgets, while this one certainly did not.)
I also felt that the story developed fitfully and unconvincingly. Particularly troubling is the arc of the relationship between the two newlyweds, who make almost an overnight change from fawning over each other to growing short-tempered and perhaps even considering a separation. It's not clear why two, or three, or however many days aboard this boat changes them so fundamentally.
Then there's the more intangible "Frenchness" of the film. I'm the first to admit that I am sometimes kept at arm's length by certain traits that many films of French cinema share in common, the kind that are often lampooned. As L'Atalante is praised specifically for its influence on the French New Wave, it's no surprise that some of those things might bother me here. One example is Pere Jules. He seems to serve the same role as one of Shakespeare's classic fool characters, which means his function should be primarily comic relief. Yet this bellowing, braying character has a more traditionally heroic function in the resolution of the film's core conflict than does the hero himself. I'm not saying I need my narratives so conventional as to be able to put the characters in neat little boxes, but in this case it was enough to throw me off.
The biggest problem with L'Atalante is beyond this film's own control, and relates more to its exalted #12 position in the poll. Simply put, there was too large of a gap between my expectations for what was considered in the top dozen best films of all time, and what I actually got. After viewing such a revered film, I should at least be able to perceive some specific thing about it that might make lots of other people really love it, even if I don't love it myself. But this is where I came up emptiest with L'Atalante. Even now, I can't tell you what makes it important or significant or even worth watching all the way to the ending -- something I won't be doing twice to give myself another chance to figure it out.
Or maybe I'll just never fully "get" French filmmakers. Sacre bleu.