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Jean Vigo's anarchic style made a splash with his very first film. His first effort À propos de Nice is a silent docu-essay about the French resort town of Nice. It soon departs from the established agenda of the 'city symphony' experimental subgenre. Vigo's camera instead seems to X-ray the social and psychological aspects of life on the ritzy Nice beachfront, where the wealthy come to soak in the sun and display their affluence.
Without a narration or a soundtrack, comparisons of rich and poor take second position to surreal, often humorous visions. Shots of well-dressed folk on the beachfront walk are interrupted by a shot of an ostrich's head, looking just as self-satisfied; it's only the beginning of a number of wickedly satiric cutaways to animals and statuary. Workers wash the gutters and set out the tables, and then proceed to manicure the trees and sculpt garish costumes for the carnaval celebration. Shots of the boats, cars and airplanes of the rich are followed by a poor man's odd, custom-made bicycle apparatus. Vigo analyzes a chic woman of fashion sitting in a deck chair: her expensive clothes disappear layer by layer until she lounges in the nude, without ever changing her fashionably disinterested attitude. When the carnaval parade becomes a riot of movement and dancing, the 'giant head' sculpted costumes go on parade, like strange gods. Vigo's camera looks up the dresses of a group of revelers atop a platform. The girls kick their legs up, inviting our gaze. The display may be decadent but it rounds out the portrait of a town that dispenses pleasures to the well heeled.
À propos de Nice was a genuine Avant-garde attraction shown in film clubs and in a few art theaters; Jean Vigo was reportedly inspired by the classic of that circuit, Buñuel's An Andalusian Dog. His second film Taris is a nine-minute commission job to celebrate the skill of a French swimming champion. Vigo simply records the swimmer in slow motion, producing a respectable record of an athlete.
At this point producer Jacques-Louis Nounez stepped in and offered Vigo the opportunity to make a theatrical film to fit into a 'short feature' category. The director wrote the wildly surreal Zéro de conduite, a subversive comedy about rebellion in a boy's school. A timeless hymn to anti-authoritarian revolt, the show is a parade of absurdities. With the exception of one free spirit who does Charlie Chaplin impersonations, the teachers are neurotics, martinets or closeted perverts. One sneaks into empty classrooms to steal the boys' snacks and candy, while another makes obvious overtures to a boy deemed a sissy. The headmaster is a pompous midget with an enormous beard, who struggles to use normal-sized furniture. A group of incorrigibly mischievous students disobey the rules and laugh at their punishments, all the while plotting to disrupt a school celebration attended by local dignitaries -- represented by a line of uniformed boors, their seating gallery augmented by a row of stuffed dummies. The most famous scene is an anarchic pillow fight that ends in a slow-motion procession through a hail of feathers. The movie celebrates rebellion for its own sake.
The Zéro de conduite premiere was cheered and booed by a mixed audience of conservative press representatives and the artistic intelligentsia. The censors banned it outright, citing it as a potentially corrupting influence on society. French censors have traditionally been sensitive to criticism of established authority, and Vigo's Jeunes diables think nothing of addressing their superiors with unrepentant obscenities. A minor celebrity with an un-releasable film, Jean Vigo might have been forced to seek an artistic patron and retreat to short subjects. Instead, producer Nounez suggested that he try a less controversial subject. Vigo 'adjusted' an existing screenplay about a young married couple's first trip on their barge, from the bride's rural hometown to Paris. Rather than affect a satirical tone or attack the status quo with shocking images, Vigo fashioned his final film L'Atalante as a sensual, romantic dream.
The outwardly conventional L'Atalante begins when barge captain Jean (Jean Dasté) marries the inexperienced Juliette (Dita Parlo). She leaves her unhappy relatives behind, happy to see something beyond her village. As the barge cruises slowly through the misty countryside we share scenes of domestic bliss (Jean and Juliette prepare their marriage bed by shooing away a group of cats) and ethereal visuals (Juliette strides the length of the barge in her wedding dress, like a white ghost). Many sequences observe the odd behavior of La père Jules (Michel Simon), a crewmember with a huge, shapeless face and a collection of souvenirs gathered on his many voyages. Discord comes when Juliette and Jean's hoped-for nighttime excursion into Paris must be canceled, and things become worse when Juliette is charmed by a traveling salesman / entertainer (Gilles Margaritis), who serenades her with nonsense songs. The newlyweds fight, and Jean abandons Juliette when she goes ashore alone to think things out. With Jean soon collapsing into lovesick misery, even the optimistic Jules doesn't know if a happy ending is possible.
L'Atalante stays connected to the Avant-garde through its hazy, hallucinatory dream imagery. Juliette tells Jean that a reflection in water predicted their romance. The despondent Jean jumps overboard, and sees a vision of Juliette as an underwater spirit. In his delirium he walks to the sea, perhaps to kill himself. There follows a montage of dissolved shots of the couple sleeping alone but sharing an erotic loss of the other. The non-linear images express the attraction between lovers as something that transcends the physical.
Jean Vigo was never in good health, and is said to have literally worked himself to death making L'Atalante. Vigo's creative team, which included cinematographer Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men) and composer Maurice Jaubert Drôle de drame, Le quai des brumes) were committed to his genius, and shocked when the distributor Gaumont radically re-edited L'Atalante and re-titled it with the name of a current song hit, Le chaland qui passe. Too sick to complete the editing, Vigo died only a few months later, convinced that his life's pursuit had been a failure. Of his two features one was unreleased and the other mangled beyond recognition. As detailed in an excellent documentary included on Criterion's disc, something close to his original cut was released under its proper title in 1940, at the beginning of the German Occupation. Jean Vigo's genius would be acknowledged after the war, when the Cinematheque crowd rediscovered À propos de Nice as well. Recent restorations have greatly improved both features, recovering footage and improving the visual quality. Jean Vigo is now more than ever regarded as one of the best directors in film history.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Complete Jean Vigo will be an audiovisual feast to students and cinephiles that recall older, frequently inaudible 16mm prints. All four pictures exhibit wear and a variety of minor damage, but the clarity and sharpness of the restored HD images is sometimes startling. À propos de Nice looks remarkably good, and the print of Zéro de conduite allows us to enjoy oddball details, such as the teacher that maintains his Chaplin imitation right through the final "battle". We now can say with assurance that Lindsay Anderson's If.... is really a direct remake of Vigo's film.
All four films carry commentaries by Vigo biographer Michael Temple, and the music score for the silent À propos de Nice is by composer Marc Perrone.
Criterion has lucked into an ideal group of extras for their deluxe disc set, thanks to the French television's interest in all things cinematic. A 1964 overview of the life and films of Jean Vigo benefits from the participation of several of the filmmaker's collaborators and actors, all of which gladly recall their experiences. We learn the particulars of Vigo's upbringing: his father was an anarchist publisher murdered in prison for his pacifism in WW1. Had he lived, a truly marvelous career might have been the result.
In another excellent TV excerpt, Eric Rohmer interviews François Truffaut about Vigo, eliciting from the director a wealth of brilliant ideas. A technical documentary on L'Atalante by Bernard Eisenschitz goes into amazing detail on the editorial crimes perpetrated on the film, illustrated with clips from the altered 1934 release. Many daily outtakes show the dedicated cast shivering during stage waits before the word action is called.
An animated tribute to Vigo by director Michel Gondry seems out of place, but four insert booklet essays by Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite and Luc Sante all reward careful study.
For more information about The Complete Jean Vigo, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Complete Jean Vigo, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson