In the halls of cinematic “what-ifs” there is the career of Jean Vigo. Vigo’s career was a short-lived but highly influential one. He only made four films in his time as a director; three short films: A Propos de Nice (1930), Taris (1931), Zero de Conduite (1933), and one feature length film: L’Atalante (1934). Despite having such a small body of work Vigo has gone down in history as what might be the single most influential French filmmaker ever.
Francois Truffaut’s freshman film, The 400 Blows (1959), clearly shows the influence of Vigo’s work. In fact, it’s pretty certain that most every film we classify as being a part of the French New-Wave is the child or grandchild of Vigo’s comparatively small body of work; meanwhile, Vigo’s film L’Atalante is frequently cited among the greatest films of all time. In Sight-and-Sound’s 1962 list of the greatest films ever L’Atalante was ranked #10, 6th in 1992, 17th in 2002, and 12th in 2012.
Truffaut had the following to say regarding the film:
“When I entered the theater, I didn’t even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his work.”
Vigo was the child of a couple of anarchists and spent most of his childhood on the run. His father was eventually killed while serving a prison sentence. Surly these radical political ideas instilled by his parents informed his eventual filmmaking. His films are radical and clearly hate the man. It’s pretty fair to say that Vigo himself could be called an anarchist in the same way his father was.
His films are roughly made, quickly short, loosely scripted, and wonderfully entertaining. His first film, A Propos de Nice is little more than an experiment in the ideas Russian montage and editing techniques. The way he plays his images against each other for the purpose of illustrating the political messages of his films (A Propos de Nice purposes to demonstrate the mistreatment of the poor in the city of Nice) is both comical and affecting. The joy with which Vigo plays with the camera and with his subjects is joyous.
Taris, Vigo’s sophomore film, seems to be a precursor to the cinematic vision which would eventually find its home in the films of Les Blank or even Maya Deren. It’s a figure study (like Deren’s work often was) and is also documentary in form (much like Blank’s work), and focuses on the swimming master Jean Taris. The film almost seems like a ballet, a dance, and features beautiful, ground-breaking underwater photography.
These two films, on their own, aren’t really a lot. They are experimental at best and minor films at worst. Were it not for the two remaining films in Vigo’s body of work these films would likely be forgotten, and yet they are poetic, visually lavish pieces of filmmaking that demonstrate Vigo had a natural inclination for the cinematic form. Visual poetry was a natural thing for Vigo, almost second nature you might say, and I am thankful we have these two films.
His third film, Zero de Conduite, is an anarchic masterpiece, detailing a rebellion staged by four boys who live at a boarding school. They abuse the system, mouth off to the teachers, play pranks on each other, and do everything they can except their homework. The title in English means “Zero for Conduct” and is clearly descriptive of the grade these boys will receive at the end of their semester. The film is pure chaos and yet is visually poetic and beautiful. Every film you’ve ever seen about kids rebelling against the school system is a child of this movie.
Vigo’s final film, L’Atalante, is a complete visual poem. Nothing less than a pondering on marriage, love, and devotion, L’Atalante is probably the greatest film about the trials and difficulties of marriage which has ever been made. The film moves back and forth between rough and tumble, shot on the streets photography, and dreamy, visually charming editing. Vigo also revisits his experiments with Russian montage and underwater photography. One of these days I’ll do a complete write-up on L’Atalante.
Vigo’s life, however, was wrought with trouble. His films constantly faced censorship, cutting and recutting, and he and his wife fought with sickness for most of their marriage. Vigo contracted tuberculosis 1926 and in 1934 it claimed his life. He was 29 years old. Supposedly at one point, when he and his wife were extremely ill, Vigo was forced to sell his camera. Thus is the life of Jean Vigo, one of the greatest artists who has ever lived. Thankfully for us his films live on and can be enjoyed. They have been more than adequately restored, both in terms of their pictorial quality and their intended length and arrangement.
The Criterion Collection offers a wonderful DVD set, “The Complete Jean Vigo”, which is well worth your time and investment.