Featured: Jean Vigo – A Short-Term Genius
Jean Vigo (1905-1934) was only 29 years old when he died of tuberculosis. The son of an infamous anarchist who was murdered for his outspoken opposition to the First World War, Vigo endured a rough, sickly childhood in a boarding school, contracted the disease that would kill him, and be able to make four films, the last of which was his only full-length feature. Yet, the directors and authors of the French New Wave would cite him as a major influence in their industry because Vigo was a director ahead of his time. The last four years is when he made his short resume, all poetic and slightly surreal in tone, and his rebellious nature is visible in these works.
First came À propos de Nice, or About Nice, in which Vigo made this silent 25-minute documentary with Boris Kaufman. Kaufman worked with Vigo in all of his works, moved to the United States, and win an Oscar for his cinematography in On The Waterfront, and work with Sidney Lumet on seven different features starting with 12 Angry Men. Nice, the beautiful Mediterranean coast town just (number) miles from Cannes, was as much then a major vacation spot in the summer. Here, Vigo and Kaufman don’t make the city as a place to come but instead attacks the society that comes there for not recognizing the reality of the Great Depression. Nice is a burlesque show with hidden shots of people having a good time while outside the city there are slums. It was followed by an even shorter film, a five-minute piece on Olympic swimmer Jean Taris. Like the fancy editing of Nice,it gets inventive with close-ups, freeze-frames, underwater shots, and reverse motions on Taris’ diving and swimming techniques.
The last two raised the stakes on his ability to tell stories. The first is arguably his most notable, a scathing attack against boarding school and a message of anger to what he felt was their fault of him contracting his fatal illness. “Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become,” Vigo wrote. Zero for Conduct is a forty-minute story of four boys, done with the strict punishment of their teachers, execute a revolt that riles up the rest of the students to overthrow the authoritarian teachers. On its release, it was hated, condemned, and banned because of the fear it could instill anarchist views and disrupt order. After World War II, when Vigo was examined by film historians, Zero for Conduct was seen as a brilliant statement of young repression and brought back memories of what a child might have been like for many. (The film is on the public domain for now; above is in full.) The playful rebellion scene which involves a major pillow flight and a satire exit with the new king of the students. It is no surprise that it influenced Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsey Anderson’s if…
Finally, there is L’Atalante, a conventional romantic story of a new marriage that is about life on a barge and the instant issues faced because, well, they live on a barge because that’s also the husband’s workplace. It is a plain short story that Vigo and his magical mind took and converted it into a dream shot. It is a funny look at a new chapter of life but the old habits die hard, especially with two crewmen who’ve not seen a woman in a long time. When the couple gets separated, it turns into a melancholy look with a slate of Kaufman’s creative light symbolizing the anxiety of separation. The dream underwater sequence was magnificently shot intercut with the windy glow of the wife, a dreamy sequence of how a man like the captain of a barge got a beautiful woman like her.
In France, the Prix Jean Vigo was established in 1951 and awarded to a director for their achievement in originality and stylistic filmmaking. Alain Resnais and Jean Luc-Godard were among the first decade of winners; later winners include Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper) and Mathieu Amalric (known more for acting, notably as the Bond villain Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace). Vigo’s short life still left a major impact to historians and directors of the next generation and his work has been preserved. The total of his work is shorter than Titanic, but it is more entertaining than that – even L’Atalante – and done on the cheap. Knowing his own mortality, Vigo poured out everything he could give and showed what greatness we could have watched had he not departed.
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