Dir. Jean Vigo
Some marriages are not built to last. Some might claim that this is because a human being's psychologically programmed first priority is reproduction and monogamy goes against that instinct. I think it is a bit more complicated than that. Romance is like an intense friendship. For instance, you may find that you really enjoy spending time with a person but cannot tolerate living with them. This is because upon living with them you discover a whole new set of characteristics, both good and bad, that you wouldn't have otherwise known about. It is also invasive if you're the type of person who needs private space and time to your self. Some marriages come too early and the couple finds that all the luxuries they had in being just a couple are lost upon entering into matrimony. Couples have their own conceptions of what their union will be like and how perfect it will be that are often times unrealistic in relation to their present situation. Jean Vigo's L'Atalante is a study in what makes a marriage work, but more importantly what makes it fall apart at the seams. It is a piece by piece dissection of what keeps us together and drives us apart, and the more that occasional futility of romance.
Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) have just been married. The stage is set for disappointment as it becomes clear that Juliette's primary reason for marrying Jean was so she could flee her hometown aboard L'Atalante, Jean's cargo vessel. They are joined by the kind idiot Papa Jules (Michel Simon) and 'the kid' (Louis Lefebvre). Trouble stirs early in the delusive paradise as Jean has a habit of flying into nasty, uncontrollably jealous rages whenever he sees his lovely bride being sought after by another man. It is here that Vigo puts on display an irony as old as time: Jean's jealousy extends from his love for and adoration of Juliette, but the way it manifests itself ultimately drives her away. In his madness he demands that the ship move forward, leaving Juliette behind, just offshore.
It is at this point where the physical movement of characters and their actions become a grand metaphor for subconscious desires. Both Jean and Juliette flee. The two feel trapped, in separate ways. Juliette wants to see Paris, which follows her pattern of wanting something larger and more intriguing for herself. Jean is a naturally independent and aggressive young man who doesn't like to be proved wrong by anyone, much less his new bride. It is not long before the two reconcile their differences, albeit not by any kind of mutual sacrifice. Instead they become overwhelmed by disillusionment in regards to what they thought they wanted and thus settle on second-rate pleasure. The film is cyclical in that sense: it ends with the two embracing and laughing, but it leaves the viewer unsure of whether or not this is a good thing. One could easily imagine the two being happy (again) for a few days, and then becoming unstable and depressive (again); falling into the same pattern of leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back.
L'Atalante is about tumultuous love and is largely upsetting in that regard. Its ending is irresolute although the highly poetic style of French romance largely undercuts this effect. The assured and ecstatic faces of the two lovers don't completely quell the inborn insecurity about whether or not Jules and Juliette will ever be completely happy. What makes this film rare is that this question of durability in romance is hardly ever posed in cinema. How many millions of romantic relationships have blossomed on the silver screen and how often does the viewer ever trouble him or herself with the nagging questions about the longevity of love? It's not that this form of romance is cheap; it's what people want to see: unquestionable, inalienable happiness. What is discomforting is that we come to expect what we see on the screen to be true to life as well, but, as anyone who's ever had a failed romance can tell you, it is a bit more complicated than that. Vigo captures that natural contradiction of 'good enough' love in L'Atalante, as well as the marked absence of simplicity. He proposes that love can be as much a struggle as a vacation (if not a lot more). It happens that some people can't see the trip for the travel, only the destination, which is not always where they expected. In short: you can call a cargo ship a luxury yacht, but that alone won't make it true.