A common romantic comedy premise is the idea of newlyweds stuck in close contact with one another and isolated from their environment, usually on a boat or something like that. During such situations, the couple discovers new and often unsavory things about each other. Through this journey, they gain respect and a deeper understanding. Jean Vigo’s 1934 film L’Atalante has a similar premise, but with a more serious and realistic approach (with the occasional comedic scene). Despite its faults, this film uses water to symbolize the turbulent nature of new romantic relationships.
The story follows a young newlywed couple, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), who, right after their marriage, decides to live on Jean’s ship, L’Atalante. Complications arise during their travels when Jean becomes jealous of Juliette hanging out with his shipmates, including the cantankerous and crude Père Jules (Michel Simon). Jean’s anger and jealousy culminates when they arrive in Paris. Juliette wishes to explore the city, but Jean forbids her to do so. She sneaks off the ship without his knowledge. Angry, Jules commands his crew to continue on their journey without her. He soon regrets his decision, and he becomes depressed without her presence. Meanwhile, Juliette tries to buy a ticket home, but her purse is stolen. She is forced to get a job in Paris so she can afford a place to stay. Both characters feel lost and rooted in their present situations. One day, after recalling an old story Juliette told him involving finding true love, Jean jumps out of the ship docked in Paris and frantically searches for her. Jules chases after Jean, and through his search, he finds Juliette in a music shop. The couple reunites, and are happy together again.
An interesting aspect of this film is its use of water as a symbol. Water plays a large role in the film’s plot and story. Specifically, the sea acts as the driving force between Jean and Juliette’s separation and eventual reunion. In the beginning of the film, when the ship first starts running, Juliette teases Jean about him and the water, and Jean dunks his head into a water bucket as a joke. This is most likely a reference to a previous scene not shown in the film, in which Juliette tells Jean that one can see the the face of their true love in water. As a response, Jean had dunked his head into a bucket of water. This scene shows their camaraderie and affection towards each other. The sea at this point is calm and unassuming.
However, as the crew is delayed by a few days from reaching their stop in Paris, Jean and Juliette, alone and secluded in the middle of the sea, become frustrated and engage in petty fights. Jean becomes irrationally angry at Juliette for talking to his shipmates, and is convinced that somehow she is cheating on him. Juliette does not know where his anger is coming from, and does not know how to properly console him. The two quickly make up, and then quickly begin fighting again.
Once Juliette flees and Jean is left alone, he dunks his head in a bucket as a way to emotionally connect with her and relive the same action in the beginning of the film. He is unable to reconnect with her through this, and thus attempts this again on a larger scale by jumping out of the ship and into the river where the ship is docked. It is this connection with water that allows Jules to search for Jean and eventually find Juliette.
Despite my interest in the film’s representation of water as a symbol, I did not enjoy this film. The plot meandered on a few occasions, and the story was not that compelling. The film dwells on certain aspects of the sailors’ lives, but there is little payoff to this exposition. Additionally, the purpose of such an exploration eluded me. I do not know what there was to gain from learning about these characters, if the focus seemed to be more on the relationship between the couple. By the film’s conclusion, I did not gain that much emotionally from the experience.
L’Atalante uses water to represent the conflicts and resolutions involved in any new romantic relationship. Just as water can be malevolent or benevolent, often both at the same time, so can relationships. Jules and Juliette’s stability fluctuates between serenity and conflict because they know so little about each other. Such a situation is expected, since they had just gotten married as soon as they embarked on the ship. By presenting water as a symbol in this context, Vigo illustrates a fundamental problem many newlyweds share.