Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at the age of 29, a poet of the cinema whose flame burned brightly but all too briefly.
Between 1931 and 1934, he made four flops which are now considered cinematic masterpieces and which had a huge influence on French New Wave directors.
His filmography consists of a couple of documentaries, a short film about a school rebellion and a feature-length movie about a married couple on a barge. All these can be viewed in under three hours.
His first film was a 25 minute documentary, A Propos De Nice (1930), which could easily have turned out as a conventional travelogue highlighting the picturesque aspects of this fashionable French resort.
However, Vigo was not blinded, nor especially interested, in showing just the glamorous aspects of the city, There is crisply edited footage of a carnival, wealthy promenaders, motor racing, sailing and dancing but , by contrasting these images with views of the back streets, he shows that the playground for the rich was, at the same time, a hell hole for the poor. Vigo described the film as showing “the last gasp of society lost in its escapism”.
In 1931 he accepted a commission to make Taris, roi de l’eau, a 9 minute documentary in which a swimming champion, Jean Taris, describes his winning technique stroke by stroke.
It is not the educational content that makes this such a remarkable film but the inventiveness of Vigo who uses reverse shots, freeze frames, underwater sequences and close-ups of the athlete’s body in action. These experimental flourishes make what might be a boring instruction video into something both dynamic and fascinating.
Vigo’s anti-establishment stance came most strongly to the fore in Zéro De Conduite (1933) which was inspired by nine unhappy years at a boarding school.
Zero for conduct is the grade dished out by teachers for pupils who misbehave. Frustrated by the conformity and idiocy of the educational system, a small group of schoolkids plot a full-scale rebellion.
The authority figures are such a bunch of dullards that they don’t generate any sympathy and prove easy to overthrow. British director, Lindsay Anderson took a lot of ideas from this movie when making his own movie of a classroom revolution, ‘If’.
The crowning achievement of Vigo is L’Atalante (1934).
The title is the name of a canal barge where newly weds Jean and Juliette spend a less than idyllic honeymoon.
The barge captain and husband (Jean Dasté) is a possessive type who would be happy to keep his wife in this contained environment. He is even jealous of her being in the company of one of the crew Père Jules (Michel Simon) even though this man seems too devoted to his cats to have designs of his wife.
Juliette (the stunning Dita Parlo) is loyal and loving but wants to see people and life. When they stop in Paris she is fascinated by the bright lights and big city and has an innocent dalliance with a street peddler. In a huff, hubby leaves in the barge without her before having second thoughts.
The story is simple, even simplistic, but Vigo injects it with humour, passion and inventiveness. Together with cinematographer Boris Kaufman he creates vivid images of a couple who long to be together yet, locked in their own worlds, are only truly united after they have spent time drifting apart.
My favourite scene is where the almost suicidal husband dives fully clothed into the canal – Juliette has told him that water is a conduit for love so when he encounters the ghostly form of his wife underwater it signifies the beginning of their reconciliation.
You don’t have to join a film club or live near an arts cinema to be able to watch all these marvellous movies since all four , at the time of writing sat least, are free to view on You Tube.
So if you have three hours to spare …………
- My weekend movie: L’Atalante (1934) (knittednotes.wordpress.com)