The entire works of Jean Vigo, one of cinema’s master magicians, has recently been released on DVD.
Although carefully titled as L’Atalante (with additional titles indicating that the release includes everything created by the director) this is an opportunity to re-examine the wonderful works of one of cinema’s greatest directors. Vigo, who died at a tragically young age, created just a few films. In many ways the timing of this review is bizarrely relevant as Sight and Sound will soon release its ’10 greatest films ever made’ poll, which runs every decade. Vigo’s only feature film L’Atalante appeared in the critics’ lists in 1962 and 1992. One wonders if it will appear again in 2012.
A curious combination of documentary and art À propos de Nice is a wonderful examination of a French city, its culture and people which is utterly compelling in its observations. Unusually, it is the editing that really stands out and connects so many aspects of the film visually because it refuses to rely on standard narrative devices. This can be seen right from the opening and carries through the film all to the way the carnival scenes that are the highlight of the film. The combination of social observation which has, understandably, evolved in eighty plus years since the film was made, integrated with revelations, surprising jump-cuts, artistic metaphors and visual re-interpretations ensure that this remains a thoroughly engaging art-documentary. The DVD has a number of alternative edits available for viewing. These both add and remove some aspects of the cultural commentary but clearly illustrate how the film evolved to became altogether surreal in its execution.
Taris centres on Vigo’s interest in sport as both a cultural and recreational occupation. Jean Taris was France’s roi de l’eau, a swimming champion who was expected to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1932 games, but who was beaten in the final by Buster Crabbe who, of course, became an actor and starred as Flash Gordon some years later. The documentary itself is a curious combination of conventional observations about its subject mixed with a heavy dose of surrealism. Vigo examines both the career and techniques of Taris but uses the medium of film not only to enhance his sporting and physical abilities but also makes the most of the cinematography and editing as an artistic venture, using reverse filming and jump cuts to add an unconventional twist to the portrayal of its subject.
Zero de Conduite is Vigo’s first narrative film. A strong sense of the bizarre pervades this delightful short about a minor revolution at a boarding school for boys. The pupils aboard Harry Potter’s Hogwarts’ Express are veritable paragons of virtue compared with Bruel and Colin on their train journey to school. They’re a little worried about the dead man in their carriage but it turns out that he isn’t dead after all, he’s just the new master. Vigo’s exploration of this miniature society and rejection of the rules and social norms that form a fundamental part of the school experience is both engaging and political. An enormous influence on If…. (1968) as well as Truffaut’s Quatre Cent Coups (1959) Vigo’s characters shun authority with both determination and glee. Vigo was the son of an anarchist who died in prison when Jean was just a boy, and his disrespect of authority clearly stems from his own childhood experiences. Zero de Conduite is chock full of fascinating characters, particularly the teaching staff, who are all caricatures, most notably the new teacher who has a disconcerting habit of imitating Charlie Chaplin at playtime as well as inadvertently letting the boys run riot around town on their regular Sunday walk. Most peculiar of all are the row of dummies who act as dignitaries at a school ceremony. And whoever thought a pillow fight could look so beautiful?
Vigo’s only feature film, L’Atalante, was completed shortly before he died, but it remains a remarkable film adored by critics and audiences alike. The film’s structure is deceptively straightforward – after a whirlwind courtship, Jean, the owner of a barge, marries Juliette and they set off on what amounts to a working honeymoon aboard Jean’s barge, to deliver their cargo in Paris. Having a woman aboard certainly sets the cat amongst the pigeons (or should that be the pigeon amongst Mate Pere Jules’ large collection of cats?) for the crew. Jean covets Juliette and she feels stifled. She leaves the barge in Paris, lured by the bright lights of the big city and the tempting goods sold by street peddlers. But the city can be a dark and dangerous place. Jean simply has to get her back.
It is, perhaps, L’Atalante’s minimalism that makes it so charming. A love story that doesn’t need complex sub-plots, or extraneous narrative devices, it is the essence of simplicity and this gives the audience the chance to engage with the protagonists. And what a bunch of fascinating characters live aboard the barge, most notably cat-loving Jules, a rumbustious individual, played with aplomb by Michel Simon. And our leads are so clearly in love despite, rather implausibly, having only recently met.
A simple story, grounded in reality and yet with a fantastical feel, thanks to the subtly surreal style of its maker, the film has a dreamlike quality rarely seen before or since. Beautiful and enchanting, L’Atalante is a remarkable film and one of the best romantic dramas ever made.