Few filmmakers can deem their entire filmography to be absolutely flawless and influential, yet upon his death at the ripe age of 29, Jean Vigo left behind a truly incomparable filmic legacy: he made four movies in the space of four years, all of them truly magnificent exercises in filmic poetry and each of them topping the previous one in terms of artistry and beauty.
The son of the notorious Catalan anarchist Miguel Almereyda (real name Eugeni Bonaventura de Vigo I Sallés), the young Jean spent his childhood traveling from town to town in order to support his father’s tumultuous lifestyle. Little is known about his life during these years, except that he was sent to boarding school where he assumed a false identity for security reasons, that he eventually became an assistant cameraman in Nice and that he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 21. Next, Vigo’s biography seems to pick up the minute he got involved in filmmaking at age 24, when his father-in-law gave him enough money to buy a camera.
This year also marked the fateful date in which the young Jean met Boris Kaufman, who would become cinematographer for all his four films and would eventually find glory in Hollywood. When Jean and Boris met as young men, their raging idealism made them the right people to make the revolutionary – and ironically titled – À propos de Nice. This silent documentary takes notice of the social inequities happening in the otherwise paradisiacal city of Nice. The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the coastal town.
These kind of shots would become Vigo’s trademark and eventually become hugely influential for nouvelle vague filmmakers in the early ‘60s. After giving us a glimpse of the joys of Nice, the film turns itself on us and shows us the other side of prosperity in the shape of the workers who slave themselves to create this illusion.
À propos de Nice
Perhaps borrowing some of his father’s spirit of inconformity, the film is notorious for its subtly Eisenstenian use of edition to juxtapose images of joy against harrowing visuals of poverty and injustice. The film is often compared to Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera because they both share innovative editing and aim to show city-dwellers elements they’d be otherwise unaware of. Besides, Vertov was Kaufman’s brother.
Vigo followed Nice with a much less confrontational piece: a portrait of French Olympic swimmer Jean Taris, simply named Taris (in French followed by the subtitle: “king of the water”). In an audio commentary included in Criterion’s boxset, author Michael Temple deems this the movie where Vigo would “learn his trade”.
Less a documentary than a humanist study of motion and a lovesong to the beauty of the male body, Taris slightly reminds us of those first pictures created by the curious Eadweard Muybridge back during cinema’s prehistoric era. This ethereal feeling often serves to categorize Vigo’s oeuvre as “surrealist”, even if unlike his contemporaries there are no truly fantastical sequences in his films.
His use of camera techniques in Taris announced the imminent arrival of a force that was to be reckoned with. Plot in this film – actually narration of facts – has got nothing to offer when paired against the truly haunting images of the agile swimmer displaying grace and animalistic beauty. Few nonfiction directors have captured their subjects having fun, as well as Vigo did with Taris. Self-professed admirer Francois Truffaut, calls Vigo the “first professional avant garde filmmaker” (in an archival interview counted among this set’s first rate bonus features). Truffaut compares Vigo’s achievements to Jean Cocteau’s but gives the former the edge in terms of simple beauty. Taris is proof of that.
If the ability to move effortlessly from subject to subject is a display of genius, then Vigo gets an extra point for never having recycled themes for his projects. After two completely different documentaries, he directed his first fiction film in 1933. Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) is an autobiographical account of life in a boys only boarding school. Borrowing from the works of Charles Chaplin and Alfred Jarry, the film is an often hilarious tale of anarchy within the microcosms of an already rebellious period for any person.
As the film begins, we see a group of children traveling on a train and performing every single prank available on the book, before their voyage reaches the destination where all of this that seems so natural to them, is often punished and misjudged. The film, which runs at less than an hour, is a stunningly choreographed work in which Vigo juggles with the threat of bureaucracy while delivering joyous slapstick sequences.
In Vigo’s films you always have the feeling that there is something going on in the world outside of the scene we’re watching. There is always a sense of movement and life that thrives beyond the limits of the frames we’re watching. This never comes off as dreadful lurking but as an all-encompassing world view.
Zero de conduite
Truffaut quite literally borrowed entire moments from this movie for his brilliant The 400 Blows, like the iconic scene in which a group of children wreak havoc on what ought to have been a tranquil walk through the city streets. If Vigo served as inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers, his work also shows extreme admiration for other artists. During one lovely sequence in Zéro de conduite, the school’s free spirited teacher (played with bubbly energy by Jean Dasté) dons a hat and cane to impersonate Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” for his restless students.
Criterion once again shows immeasurable passion for the preservation of film classics and besides restoring Vigo’s first three films to luminous perfection, they have gone and remastered his last film L’Atalante to such pristine levels that you won’t avoid but be transfixed by its gorgeousness. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made – and almost quite certainly the most romantic—L’Atalante is rivaled only by Citizen Kane in terms of pushing the medium of cinema beyond what anyone would’ve expected.
As with most masterpieces of cinema, the story told in the movie is quite simple: a young barge owner (played by Dasté) marries a girl (Dita Parlo) he barely knows. Having her illusions shattered by her husband’s brutish ways, the young woman abandons the barge only to realize that she is in love with him after all, but it might be too late for them to be happy by then.
For obvious reasons, L’Atalante is the film that receives the most attention in the extra features. There is an entire documentary, made by historian Bernard Eisenschitz, dedicated to its arduous restoration process, in which we see how Vigo shot several scenes in different ways, all adding new dimensions to the way in which we end up perceiving the characters.
Yet L’Atalante is truly one of those films you have to see in order to believe. There is no way of making it justice using just words, for desire has never been captured with the same intensity with which Vigo grasps on to the idea of love in this movie. In a fascinating interview with fellow nouvelle vague-r Eric Rohmer, Truffaut declares that “in terms of carnal realism [Vigo] went further than anyone” and with reason; upon its release L’Atalante was accused of being “vulgar” and “overlong” by distributors who in appropriate fashion proceeded to butcher and cut it, to the point where it took almost six decades to restore the film to its original form.
Every element in L’Atalante is worthy of its own essay, beginning of course with Kaufman’s simply fantastic use of the camera. He crafts a cabinet of phantasmagoria by collecting images that haunt and move us without any apparent reason. The film has become famous for its beautiful underwater sequences, which inspire cinephiles and film students to wonder “how did they do that” with such ease and uncompromising grace.
The performances in the film also have become landmarks in their own right, with Jean Dasté’s, père Jules becoming the standard by which all “kooky sidekick” characters are judged by and Parlo’s Juliette going as far as to inspire Federico Fellini when making La Strada. Best in show might be Dasté, whose overcoming raw sexuality predates Marlon Brando’s groundbreaking turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. For all the ear biting and breast caressing that goes on in this film, it’s its delicacy and melancholy that will remain with us forever.
It’s a true pleasure to see that Criterion has done such great justice to Jean Vigo’s limited, but absolutely essential filmography. In terms of pure worth for your money value, this set demands to be seen, owned and studied. It’s a true thing of beauty.