Despite having a very short filmography, that spanned four years until his death at age 29, Jean Vigo is a filmmaker who helped to redefine what cinema can achieve. Though his films were part of French cinema’s Poetic Realism era of the 1930s, Vigo eventually became a major influence on the French New Wave movement in the 1960s. Though working during the period where cinema was moving away from silent films towards something much grander, Vigo was a man whose films were ahead of their time. His impact can still be seen in the works of many of the modern directors who sing his praises.
Born on April 26, 1905 in Paris, France, Vigo was the son of renowned anarchist Eugeni Bonaventura de Vigo i Sallés, who is better known under his adopted name Miguel Almereyda. Jean Vigo spent much of his childhood on the run with his family. After his father was strangled in prison in August of 1917, Vigo went to boarding school under the name Jean Sales. It was the only place that would accept him after more prestigious schools shunned him upon discovering his true identity. The experiences of his childhood became the basis for one of his films many years later.
After marrying Elisabeth “Lydou” Lozinska in 1926, and fathering a future film critic in son Luce, Vigo spent his early adult life working at the Franco Film studio as a camera assistant. His father-in-law bought Vigo a second-hand camera to encourage his aspirations of being a filmmaker. It was around this time that Vigo met cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who became one of Vigo’s key collaborators throughout his brief career. Kaufman’s older siblings Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman, the men behind the famous silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera, were two figures that fueled Vigo’s desire to become a filmmaker.
À propos de Nice (review)
During their trip to Nice with their wives, Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman came up with the idea to make a film that serve as an anti-travelogue of the city. The short film entitled À propos de Nice is a unique mixture of documentary and fantasy. It not only highlights the party aspect of Nice, but also a side of the city that is rarely seen in films. The film juxtaposes the harsh realities of the factories and slums with the oblivious nature of the wealth young tourists that flock to Nice each year.
Vigo’s appearance in the film, during a sequence at a parade, only added to À propos de Nice overall whimsical tone. Vigo and Kaufman played into the quirky tone even further through their creative editing. A great example can be found in the random montage of a woman sitting on a chair. During the montage the audience watches as the woman’s clothes change and dissolve until she is completely naked. Unfortunately the film did not connect with audiences upon its release in May of 1930. However, thanks to the way it blurred ideas of reality and fiction, À propos de Nice became a touchstone film for a new era of emerging filmmakers years later.
Following the release of À propos de Nice, Vigo was asked by the French government to make a documentary short about French swimming champion Jean Taris. Vigo agreed to take on the project for financial reasons but infused a lot of his own ideas into the project. Shooting at the aquatic hall where Taris conducted his practices, Vigo and Kaufman incorporated several unique shots for the time in Taris. This included images of Taris swimming underwater while looking at the camera through one of the windows surrounding the pool. With Vigo serving as the film’s editor, he utilized an array of cutting styles to evoke the notion of Taris swimming against himself.
Sadly Vigo’s vision was not shared by the government. Other filmmakers were eventually enlisted by the French government to re-shoot and re-cut aspects of Vigo’s film. Though Vigo wasn’t pleased with the final results, his initial vision showcased many of the ideas that would later become common techniques for French newsreels in 1931.
Zéro de conduite (review)
After two poorly received short films, and with Vigo’s health worsening, a godsend finally came in the form of businessman Jacques-Louis Nounez. Interested in getting into the film business, and having seen Vigo’s shorts, Nounez was eager to collaborate with the director on a film. Inspired by his own experiences at boarding school, Vigo decided to make a short film about a group of schoolboys rebelling against a rigid education system. Bringing Boris Kaufman onboard to shoot the film, Vigo secured composer Maurice Jaubert to provide the film’s whimsical score.
Shooting began in December of 1932 with Vigo opting to use non-professional actors for the film. Through Zéro de conduite Vigo expressed both his own disdain for authority while also paying tribute to the anarchist ideals of his father. In the film he gave the students the trait of profound wisdom and portrayed authority figures in a comedic manner. An example of the latter can be seen in the casting a dwarf in role of the school’s headmaster. This was all considered to be very controversial for its time.
Zéro de conduite premiered in April of 1933 and caused an uproar over its anarchistic tone. Though there were those who enjoyed the film, many were shocked and appalled by what they saw. The film’s controversial subject matter prompted the French government to ban it from being shown publicly. It took until 1946, after the Second World War, for the ban to finally be lifted.
Following the troubled release for Zéro de conduit, Jean Vigo and producer Jacques-Louis Nounez discussed potential projects for Vigo’s debut feature film. Nounez eventually came across a script by Jean Guinée about barge dwellers living their newlywed life on the river canals in France. Though Vigo was initially reluctant to direct L’Atalante, his health was failing fueled his need to make a picture.
With the help of Albert Riera, Vigo revised Guinée’s original script to ensure that the film played to Vigo’s own sensibilities. Jean Dasté was cast in the role of the barge captain Jean, while Louis Lefebvre was hired to play the cabin boy. The pair had previously worked with Vigo on Zéro de conduite. The biggest coup for the film was getting both Michel Simon and German actress Dita Parlo for the respective roles of Jean’s first mate Père Jules and Jean’s bride Juliette. Nailing the casting was critical for Vigo as he needed individuals who were able to handle improvisation well.
The production was troubled by harsh weather conditions, which many believed further contributed to Vigo’s already ailing health, and numerous delays that sent the film way over budget. Vigo’s health forced him to relinquish post-production duties to cinematographer Boris Kaufman and editor Louis Chavance. Kaufman shot some additional aerial footage to spice up the film’s ending, and Chavance gave shape to final cut of Vigo’s film.
Despite playing in theatres all over Paris in April of 1934, the film received a poor reception from audiences. The heads of the Gaumont Film Company, who produced the film, later re-cut and re-titled film Le chaland qui passe (The Passing Barge) in hopes that the rebranding would bring commercial success. This backfired though as the revised version was a flop upon its release in September of 1934. A month after the re-cut version was hit theaters Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis.
Vigo’s Rediscovery and Legacy
In the aftermath of World War II, when France was starting to rebuild itself, the French film industry was going through its own period of reconstruction. Film historians came across a partially-restored version of L’Atalante and, throughout the years, began praising Vigo’s techniques. By 1947 Vigo had not only gained a solid following in France, but L’Atalante and Zéro de conduite were re-released in the United States to rave reviews. The rediscovery of Vigo’s work helped to inspire the French New Wave movement. An award was even named after Vigo to celebrate new filmmakers who conveyed Vigo’s independent spirit. Recipients of the prestigious award include such notable filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Renais, Claude Chabrol,Bruno Dumont and Olivier Assayas to name a few.
Vigo’s films wouldn’t just be a source of inspiration for the French New Wave, but also for the films of Lindsay Anderson. One of Anderson’s most beloved films, 1969’s if…, was largely inspired by Zéro de conduite. Anderson was not alone in his love of Vigo’s works, filmmakers from all over the world, including Emir Kursturica and Jim Jarmusch, have frequently praised the director. This love for Vigo led to several inspired restorations of L’Atalante over the years. By 2011, Vigo was so beloved that the Criterion Collection released a remastered set of all four of Vigo’s films.
It’s been 80 years since the release of L’Atalante and the director has become one of the patron saints of cinema. Though total running time of his entire body of work is under three hours, Vigo has managed to achieved more respect and praise than most filmmakers receive in their entire careers. His films are studied and admired for their ability to blend an anarchist spirit with dazzling images. Though he died young, Jean Vigo’s short and illustrious career captured the spirit of youth with a sense of confidence and wisdom well beyond his years.
© thevoid99 2014