Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): *****
Imagine a filmmaker dying of Tuberculosis at the age of 29, leaving behind only four films, whose running time totals less than 3 hours. In the age of YouTube, such an event wouldn't rate much more than a single morning's news story, if that. But in the case of Jean Vigo (1905-1934), his legend has endured across a century. There are many tales about him, such as that his anarchist father was murdered in prison, and that Vigo himself directed much of his final film from a stretcher. He has inspired so many filmmakers, everyone from Francois Truffaut to Michel Gondry, and hardly a list of the greatest films goes by without a mention of one of Vigo's extraordinary works.
At the beginning, though, Vigo had more than his share of detractors, apparently, though it's difficult to find much negative criticism of his work today. Certainly the studio did not believe in him, and chopped his final masterpiece, L'Atalante into a 65-minute mess, turning it more or less into a long-form music video to support a popular song of the time. It was (almost) fully restored in 1990, and I had the pleasure of seeing it projected in a new film print in 2001.
Vigo's previous, and second-longest film, the 44-minute Zero for Conduct, has thus far been available in fairly shoddy editions, on VHS, and streaming on the web; and his first two short documentaries, À propos de Nice (1930) and Taris (1931), were difficult to see at all. A complete Vigo DVD collection has been available for years overseas, and now a U.S. edition has finally, thankfully been released (on both DVD and Blu-Ray) by the Criterion Collection. Along with Kino's collection of Buster Keaton's short films, this is easily the release of the year. Anyone that has ever been in love with film needs to see it.
The twenty-three minute À propos de Nice (1930) and the nine-minute Taris (1931) are documentaries of a sort, though they are peppered with Vigo's little slices of dreamlike non-reality, and they point the way to a major career to come. The first film -- a silent -- depicts a day in the life of the city of Nice, France, juxtaposing the upper and working classes. Some of the footage appears staged and some of it stolen. Though the movie has something to say, it stays off the soapbox. Rather, it comes together as a poetic impression of a city, and a time, and a culture.
Vigo gave his cinematographer Boris Kaufman co-directing credit on the film, and indeed Kaufman was an essential part of Vigo's vision. He shot all four of Vigo's films, and then went onto a prestigious Hollywood career (On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men).
The second film, Taris, is another combination of realism and poetry. Very simply, the champion swimmer Jean Taris gives a little demonstration on how to swim. Some shots are straightforward, some feature gorgeous underwater footage, and some are surreal, such as backward shots of Taris jumping out of the pool, arriving on the ledge, dry.
When most people see Jean Vigo's two longest films, Zero for Conduct and L'Atalante (1934), they tend to prefer Zero for Conduct at first. (Film critic James Agee was among them.) It's Vigo's most personal work, more unrefined and reckless. It's no more poetic than L'Atalante, just more potent, cramming as many ideas and images into a scant 43 minutes.
Zero for Conduct tells the story of three boys stuck in a terrible boys' school. The school is wretched and strange. It serves nothing but beans (everyone calls the cook "Mrs. Bean"), the teachers are inept, and the dean is a dwarf with a huge beard who keeps his hat under glass. Sometimes this stuff plays like Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou and sometimes it's goofy, like a Little Rascals short. These three boys dream up a plan to take over the school on Alumni day, which happens in a miraculous sequence during the last 10 minutes.
The boys begin by ripping up their bedding, throwing white feathers everywhere. Then Vigo takes the film into slow motion, as the boys line up for a parade. The floating feathers surround them, hanging in the air. Then our heroes climb up on the roof, and begin pelting teachers with all kinds of debris. Then, they hop-frog along the rooftop to their escape, and run off into the sunset.
The key into the movie is realizing that Vigo was able to let his anxieties, passions, dreams, and feelings come out lucidly on the screen. He wasn't hiding anything. It helps to simply let the weirdness and anarchy wash over you.
Jean Vigo's greatest (and longest) of his four films, the 89-minute L'Atalante, is a deceptively simple love story. Vigo reportedly made it on assignment, but given the story of a barge captain getting married and taking his wife down river, the great poet of the cinema saw extraordinary things hidden within. And he made an extraordinary film.
The story begins with a wedding, which occurs offscreen. First mate Père Jules (Michel Simon) and a dopey cabin boy (Louis Lefevre) run out of the church in their wedding finery to get their barge ready. Soon the married couple marches dutifully out of the church, followed by their friends and family, toward the docked barge. Before she can even change out of her wedding dress, the bride Juliette (Dita Parlo) finds herself on board and beginning her new life as a barge wife.
As the captain, Jean (Jean Daste), shoves off, Juliette climbs up top and walks up the length of the barge as it moves down river. Vigo and cinematographer Kaufman keep her in frame with the river and the boat moving opposite her. And that's only the film's first breathtaking moment.
It takes Père Jules a little time to get used to the new passenger, but he melts when she uses him as a model while hemming her dress. He shows her his collection of gizmos from all the ports of the world, including a puppet, a record player, and a dead friend's hand kept in a jar. He even smokes a cigarette from his belly button. Vigo gets remarkable use out of the limited space on board the ship, especially Père Jules' overcrowded quarters filled with his collection of stray cats. Vigo makes the film feel both cramped and roomy at the same time.
Before long, Juliette gets cabin fever and longs to see Paris. A traveling salesman (Gilles Margaritis) helps persuade her to run off. Juliette goes window-shopping and finds herself enchanted by the moving figurines therein. But she soon finds the dark, unappetizing side of Paris, with its hungry denizens and thieves, and longs to return to the ship. Vigo shows Paris as just another version of the barge, both beautiful and sad.
Though L'Atalante is a love story, Père Jules becomes the center of the movie. It's he who accepts Juliette aboard the barge (rather than resisting her presence) and it's he who brings her back at the end. The actor Michel Simon, with his gorilla arms and mashed-potato face, was one of the greatest actors in all cinema (he can best be seen in Jean Renoir's La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning). Simon brings unexpected and unusual depth to his nothing-much character and hence adds beautiful weight to the entire piece. He also creates the only moments of magical realism, such as when he demonstrates a wrestling move with himself.
Perhaps the greatest scene, though, occurs with Juliette alone in a Paris hotel, and Jean alone on the barge. Vigo shows them in a dialogue-free sequence, alternately cutting from one to the other as they physically long for each other from their lonely beds. It's one of the most sensual scenes ever filmed.
Vigo died just a few days after the butchered film's unsuccessful release. He never knew the reaction his restored version would have upon the world. It's hard to imagine what more might have come from this fertile mind, but even with his precious, tiny output, Vigo remains one of the cinema's great masters.
The Criterion Collection's disc is so gorgeous it could inspire tears of joy. Vigo scholar Michael Temple provides commentary tracks for all four films. Other extras include a new score for À propos de Nice, by Marc Perrone, recorded in 2001; an alternate cut of that first film, including footage that did not make the final cut; a 1968 conversation between Truffaut and Eric Rohmer; a tribute to Vigo by Michel Gondry; a documentary on L'Atalante; and more.
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