The Films of Jean Vigo

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Jean Vigo made only one feature film, another that was about forty minutes long, and two documentary shorts. Nonetheless, he is considered one of the most important directors in French cinema, and inspired no less than New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.

Criterion has put out a two-disc set of his entire oeuvre. His four films fit on one disc, and the other contains a 1964 documentary, as well as a conversation between Rohmer and Truffaut from 1968. (Both were television programs–what great TV the French had!)

Vigo was born in 1905. His father was an anarchist, who died (possibly murdered) in prison. His first film, from 1930, is a 27-minute long silent documentary called À propos de Nice, which shows the sights of that seaside city. Vigo breaks it into sections, at first showing the idle rich, stuffed into their beach chairs like curing hams, and then the workers and poor of the city. He also displays some interesting camera tricks, such as an attractive woman seated in a beach chair. The film dissolves so that she is wearing one outfit after another, from a fur coat to a sun dress to finally nothing at all.

His next film was a commissioned documentary Taris, a kind of how-to-swim instructional film featuring the French swimming champion. It’s the kind of thing we saw in schools when we were kids, though Vigo again allows his creativity to seep in. He shot it in a pool that had portholes in the side, so he didn’t have to use underwater cameras. A shot at the end has Taris, again in dissolve, go from bathing suit to topcoat and derby, and he appears to walk across the water.

The most important of Vigo’s films are his two narratives:  Zéro de conduite, from 1933, and L’Atalante, from 1934. The former is something of a tribute to his father, as well as autobiographical, as it deals with the horrid life of boys in a boarding school. This film nakedly inspired Truffaut, who borrowed a scene from it, when a teacher leads a group of boys through the city, and the boys take off on their own without the teacher noticing.

Zéro de conduite, above all, is a masterpiece of style. The editing is crude, prefiguring Jean-Luc Godard by thirty years, and full of rebellion. The boys, who are looked after by a couple of cretinous housemasters, revolt, and in a brilliantly rendered scene in slow-motion, lead a procession out of their dormitory, holding aloft one boy on a chair while feathers from exploded pillows drift around them.

Also, believe it or not, I thought quite a bit about National Lampoon’s Animal House while watching this film, and would love to ask John Landis if he had it in mind. Not only is there a food fight, but the climax is at a school celebration, attended by dignitaries (some of them are represented by garish mannequins, while the headmaster is a midget with a Smith Brothers beard). I also imagine that Martin Scorsese knows this film well. One of the boys in the film, who tells the headmaster that he is full of shit, is named Rene Tabard, the same name given the film professor in Scorsese’s film Hugo.

Zéro de conduite was banned by the French government for several years, so in an attempt to revive his carer, he took on an existing script which turned about to be his masterpiece, and last film, L’Atalante, from 1934. The simple story of a couple on their honeymoon on a canal barge, L’Atalante is again full of stylistic flourishes that makes the rather banal plot into something more universal and timeless.

Jean Daste and Dita Parlo are the newlyweds. She’s a provincial girl who has never left her village; he’s the skipper of a barge called the L’Atalante. The opening scenes are drolly comic, as the pair walk directly from the church to the boat, with the wedding party following behind, dourly, as if they were in a funeral procession.

The first mate is Pere Jules, (Michel Simon), an old sailor who has been around the world. He is a lumpen, vulgar sort with a homely mug and a fondness for cats. Initially there is a tension between him and the skipper’s new wife, but they warm to each other, and in a tremendously rich scene, he shows her his curios from his travels, including a puppet from Venezuela. He then shows her his tattoos, which he says keep him warm.

Daste reacts angrily to this, even though there is no real chance at romance between the two of them. Later, they will go into Paris and she will be enamored by a street peddler, whom Daste angrily knocks through a window. Parlo, feeling lonely, bored, and unwanted, leaves the barge and heads into Paris, where she is robbed and looks for work. Daste is devastated, and after an undefined period of comatose behavior, including being called onto the carpet by the shipping company boss, Simon goes into Paris to try to find Parlo.

L’Atalante was not a hit with theater owners, and was butchered and retitled by the studio. Vigo, who had shot the film during one of the coldest winters on record, was gravely ill, and could do nothing. He died shortly thereafter, at the age of 29, and over the years L’Atalante has had several different versions. A new print was released in 1990 to some fanfare, and I saw that one in New York City. I wondered what all the fuss was about, but to be fair, I was suffering from a wicked ear infection at the time.

The film was restored once again in 2002, and that is the print that is on the Criterion edition. It has regularly made the decennial poll put out by Sight and Sound magazine–it’s highest ranking was in 1992, when it was chosen the sixth-best film of all time.

I certainly wouldn’t put it that high, but it in an enchanting film, with a wonderful, big-hearted performance by Simon, as well as lovely photography by Boris Kaufman (who would go on to shoot On the Waterfront). I watched it twice in the last few days (once with a commentary by Michael Temple, author of a book about Vigo) and it’s pieces of the film that stay with me, such as when Parlo, still in her white wedding gown, walks slowly along the length of the barge in twilight, looking like an apparition, or the scene when Daste jumps into the water, told by Parlo that when one looks into water one sees the love of their life.

Vigo’s untimely early death certainly robbed the world of a major talent–it’s something of the equivalent of the death of Buddy Holly to rock and roll. For those interested in the history of world cinema, his two later films are must viewing.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

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