The great director Howard Hawks once said that for a movie to be good, it must have, "three great scenes, and no bad scenes." By this rule, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante is a good movie. The opening scene wedding procession, where we are introduced to our four characters; the scene in which Juliette (played by Dita Parlo with a sort of vacant charm) and Jules (played by the entertaining and craggly Michel Simon) wander around Jules' room, playing with his toys, before Jean (played by the uninteresting Jean Daste), whom Juliette has just been married to, bursts in and destroys the place; and the scene in the cafe, where Juliette flirts with a fast talking magician/salesman. These three scenes are all great, and L'Atalante is worth seeing because of them.
But while these three scenes are great, and none of the other scenes are bad, the film as a whole never quite manages to rise up to the exalted status in which it is held by so many. This is because the film has a couple of flaws. These flaws aren't enough to destroy the film, but they are enough to stop the film from being "great". The first, and most damaging, flaw, is the fact that the film hinges on the idea that Juliette and Jean share an intense and passionate love - but you never really feel it. At one point Juliette tells Jean that the reason she married him was because she was told that if you put your head underwater, the face that you saw was your true love: "I saw your face before I ever met you." Yep, that sounds about right, to me. She married this guy because she stuck her head in a bucket of water. It certainly wasn't because they have any sort of chemistry together, or because they like each other.
The real reason she married him is because he was from out of town - he offered her an escape from her drab and dreary provincial life. She could just get on his big ol' boat and sail away. So when did it shift from Juliette using Jean as a means of escape, to Juliette and Jean being in love? Was it when he beat her mercilessly? Was it when he acted like a jealous douchebag? When he was a mean and heartless jerk? I just didn't buy this relationship as anything approaching love, which made the ending seem hollow, and some of the "poetry" of the film seem forced.
Another small flaw in L'Atalante is its overuse of accordion music. I love the accordion as much as the next guy - in that I don't love it at all. At first the accordion music seemed sort of silly and charming, but after a while it just became an annoying and persistent screech that the film just sort of assumes you'll be happy to put up with. It wasn't so overused that I began to feel the urge to actually yell at the screen, or anything, but I did wish there was less of it.
Apart from these two problems, though, the film is good. I recommend it, but maybe try not to get swept up in all the crazy hype surrounding the film. It's good, but it's not that good.