I spend most of my November looking forward to the colossal feast that awaits on Thanksgiving at the end of the month. The anticipation builds, and my stomach’s excitement is palpable. The holiday finally arrives after weeks of waiting and my plate quickly fills with the Titans of Thanksgiving- turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes. And all of them disappear in a horrifying flurry, victims of a 30 day hunger pang. It’s all so delicious. But at some point, the stomach becomes saturated. Despite the bursts of flavor coming from my plate, the meal gradually becomes less enjoyable. By the time it’s over, I’m stuffed, left clinging to the memories of the first incredible bites to wash away the still delicious but far less enjoyable final portions. That is precisely how I felt after watching all four of Jean Vigo’s films back to back to back to back.
As a fan of French cinema, it’s been excruciating waiting for a reasonable copy of Vigo’s works to become available. Vigo made only four films in his career–all between 1930 and 1934–before he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 34. He is considered a revolutionary filmmaker, a visionary, placed atop the mountain with the cinematic Gods of yore. And yet, his films were nearly impossible to find. Or at least, they were impossible to find until Criterion recently released all four of them on a single disc. Much like the gigantic feast at the end of November, my patience would finally be rewarded. I tackled the project the other night, watching each film in the order they’re presented on the disc.
The first film was À Propos de Nice (1930), a 25 minute silent pseudo-documentary about the residents of Nice. I say “pseudo” because there are clearly a few shots and scenes that were staged. Vigo’s first film is highly engaging and features a wonderful score, which was added in 2005. There’s a stunning clarity to the images and Vigo–along with photographer Boris Kaufman–truly stretch the limits of their medium. À Propos de Nice begins with an aerial shot and goes on to employ a spinning camera, slow motion, and time-lapse photography, amongst other techniques. It’s quite a sight to behold. The film also comes with a healthy dollop of sexuality. Reading a few reviews, the film allegedly serves as a send-up of the wealthy by juxtaposing them with factory workers and the lower class. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t pick up on this in the least. I venture that I didn’t pick up on it because I was so amazed by the technical wizardry of the camerawork. It was breathtaking, and it set the tone that I was in for something special.
The technical wizardry continued in the next film, Taris, Roi de l’Eau (1931). It’s a nine minute biopic about French swimming champion Jean Taris. The sizzle that Vigo provides here doesn’t come from the narrative, which functions almost entirely on an instructional level, teaching people how to swim. But the visuals are incredible. Just as in À Propos de Nice, the images are crystal clear. Vigo provides more slow motion, a great deal of underwater shots, several brilliant close-ups of a champion athlete in perfect form, and even a few tricks involving rewound film. At only nine minutes, it’s impossible to declare it a masterpiece. And yet, the work was phenomenal.
The third selection was Zéro de Conduite (1933). This is where it all came together for Vigo. Without disappearing completely, the visuals took a backseat to the story. In many ways, it is the quintessential French film. The plot revolves around rebellious school children, which directly influenced Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Because of the continued fantastic camerawork, Vigo was able to channel a very raw and realistic humanity from children, much in the way that Louis Malle did in films like Au Revoir les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart. We receive brief glimpses of optical highjinx which brings Jean Cocteau’s work to mind. It’s accompanied by a dose of conceptual chicanery and irreverence reminiscent of the future work of Luis Buñuel. The film is playful and unconventional at all times. It works primarily because Vigo is a young master testing the boundaries of the cinematic medium. It is a work of art.
This left only 1934’s L’Atalante, widely considered one of the best films ever made. Many filmmakers in the French New Wave cite it as a strong influence. Unfortunately, my brain was stuffed. Even though the dish I’d lusted after for years–the films of Vigo–was still fresh and delicious, it had become something of a chore to finish. That is NOT a knock on L’Atalante, which was a spectacular movie. My take-away is that it was one of the very first French poetic realist films. All of the hallmarks are there–dark, foggy evenings, rainy streets, a lost cause protagonist, characters living on the margins of society (in this case, newlyweds on a boat bound for Paris).
That brings me to my final point in this exercise. There are a lot of fantastic French films out there. They owe a debt to Vigo. The two major movements in French film–the New Wave and Poetic Realism–plundered greatly from Vigo’s quartet of treasures. There are also off-shoots to legendary filmmakers like Cocteau and Buñuel, and even Malle’s role as documentarian. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the American noir drew inspiration from the Poetic Realist movement that Vigo helped start. Watching the four films was akin to traveling back in time to see the big bang.