The Complete Jean Vigo [Blu-Ray]
Director : Jean Vigo
Screenplay : Jean Vigo & Albert Riéra
Year of Release : 1934
Stars : Michel Simon (Le père Jules), Dita Parlo (Juliette), Jean Dasté (Jean), Gilles Margaritis (Le Camelot), Louis Lefebvre (Le gosse), Maurice Gilles (Le chef de bureau), Raphaël Diligent (Raspoutine, le batelier)
Jean Vigo will forever be one of cinema’s tragically lost geniuses. An unconventional artist whose life was taken at 29 by tuberculosis, he had just four short years to work behind the camera, turning the love of movies he cultivated in his early 20s into his own form of cinematic poetry. Working largely outside the French studio system and helped by friends and family (particularly his wealthy and generous father-in-law), he was able to complete four films--three shorts and a feature--each one strikingly different from the previous while still maintaining a coherent sense of authorship via their playfulness, aesthetic innovation, and evocative shifting between stark realism and poetic whimsy. Together, these four films chart a path of creative development that makes cinephiles weep with thoughts of what could have been.
We might start with Vigo’s last film and his only professional produced feature, L’Atalante, which for many represents the full flowering of his artistry. François Truffaut called Vigo the first professional avant-garde filmmaker, a description that aptly encapsulates the pleasures of L’Atalante. It is easily Vigo’s most “commercial” film, but it never loses the essence of his more abstract and poetic sensibilities (at least in its restored version, which fixes the damage done by the producer who hacked it up prior to its initial release in a failed bid to “improve” it). It is also telling that the film did not originate with Vigo, but was rather a pre-existing script that he rewrote extensively, thus turning what might have been a rote commercial project into something strikingly personal and unique.
L’Atalante tells the story of the opening months of a marriage between a young, provincial girl named Juliette (Dita Parlo), who has never left her small village, and Jean (Jean Dasté), the skipper on a barge (the source of the film’s title) that travels up and down the French canals. Immediately after the wedding ceremony, Jean and Juliette go to live on the barge, where their different life experiences immediately come into conflict. They are clearly enamored with each other, and Juliette explains to Jean with great certitude that she has personally experienced the myth that if you look into water, you will see your beloved, a sentimental idea that Vigo beautifully visualizes later in the film. All marriages have their challenges, of course, and a young marriage entrapped on a ship, whose constant motion denies them stability while also miring them in a grinding daily routine, seems particularly endangered.
Vigo plays with the line between reality and poetry, immersing the film in the hard, physical realities of working life on a barge while also inflecting the film with aesthetic flourishes, light-hearted humor (you can see the influence of Charlie Chaplin and Rene Clair), and outsized personalities, particularly Jules, the barge’s second-in-command played by the great Michel Simon. Simon plays the burly, tattooed, cat-loving, uncouth, but ultimately lovable Jules in the same manner as he played the homeless vagrant Boudou in Jean Renoir’s social satire Boudou Saved From the Drowning (1932): broad, lively, and extremely memorable. Yet, the real artistry of the performance is that, despite all his attention-grabbing antics, he never steals the show away from Jean and Juliette, who despite being conventional characters, successfully embody the highs and lows of young love and what it takes to forge a life together from such disparate pieces. Like Renoir, Vigo proves to be an astute satirist, but one who is at heart deeply humane. Sadly, L’Atalante was a flop when it was first released in France and went unseen in the United States until 1947. It was rediscovered (along with the rest of Vigo’s short career) in the late 1950s due to its influence on the French New Wave, and it even entered the top rank of Sight & Sound’s storied “Greatest Films” poll in 1962, thus assuring Vigo’s place in cinema history nearly three full decades after his premature death.
Zéro de Conduite, Vigo’s previous film and his first foray into synchronized sound, is an entirely different kind of film. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a provincial boarding school, it tells in 44 concise minutes the story of youthful rebellion against the strictures of adult authority. Like L’Atalante, it had serious problems with distribution, this time because French government censors banned the film due to its provocative allegorical content (Vigo was the son of a notorious anarchist whose reputation followed him everywhere), and thus it went largely unseen for more than a decade. The film is heavily autobiographical: Vigo spent nine years of his childhood in a similar type of boarding school, and he based many of the characters on his peers and teachers. The whole film, which is technically rough and not always fully coherent, plays like an arrested fantasy of what Vigo wished he could have done. While L’Atalante is grounded in a notable sense of reality, Zéro de Conduite is a funny, fantastical exaggeration of childhood exuberance and adult idiocy. All of the teachers at the school (with the exception of one who mimics Chaplin and walks on his hands during class) represent some reprehensible element of adulthood, whether it by hypocrisy, egotism, harshness (captured in the repeated punishment of “zero for conduct!”), or plain ol’ stupidity. Vigo even casts the school’s headmaster as a preening, bearded dwarf, suggesting a frank literalization of the phrase “mental midget.” Vigo’s preteen characters, on the other hand, are life incarnate: buoyant, intelligent, resourceful, and determined, they stage a rebellion against their conformist captors, refusing to get out of bed, pulling pranks, and undermining authority at every turn. The film’s climactic moment is an apocalyptic pillow, with Vigo filling the frame with a rain of feathers and a mock regal procession that encapsulates in hypnotic slow motion the explosive joys of freedom suddenly untethered.
Prior to that, Vigo had made two short documentaries in which he explored the limits of nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the avant-garde. His first film, À propos de Nice, was co-directed with Boris Kaufman, the brother of Soviet montage genius Dziga Vertov; Kaufman went on to shoot all of Vigo’s subsequent films and then moved to Hollywood, where he helmed numerous studio classics including Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). À propos de Nice was a self-conscious play on the trendy subgenre of documentary filmmaking in the late 1920s--so-called “city symphony” films--that attempted to capture the daily rhythms of a given city (Vertov’s 1929 film The Man With the Movie Camera is an exemplar). Vigo captures the hustle-and-bustle of the Mediterranean port of Nice, mixing in hidden-camera footage of mostly wealthy people going about their daily routines on the Promenade des Anglais with abstracted images of local architecture and staged bits of playfulness and burlesque (he is repeatedly drawn to a group of dancing girls whom he shoots in slow motion from a low angle like a dirty old man looking up their skirts). It’s a quick, jaunty film, full of wonderful imagery and beats that convey the same exuberant sense of life captured via rebellion in Zéro de Conduite.
Taris, a brief portrait of French swimming champion Jean Taris, was Vigo’s first film-for-hire. While another filmmaker might have dutifully gone about creating a hagiographic portrait of the athlete (who at the time held 23 French records), Vigo instead uses it as an opportunity to expand his cinematic palette. He turns the film into an amusing educational film, with Taris narrating his techniques while Vigo supplies the visual accompaniment of the champion at work in the water, usually in extreme slow motion that allows us to absorb the intricate details of his bodily movements while also making them slightly alien. Vigo plays with underwater cinematography, at one point foregoing the film’s ostensible intentions to indulge in lingering shots of Taris simply swimming underwater and blowing air bubbles into the camera. It is certainly Vigo’s slightest film, yet it fits into his larger body with work with great clarity, deftly showing how great artists can take generic assignments and turn them into something fascinating and personal.
It is impossible, of course, to separate the Vigo’s brevity of time on earth with the laudatory critical estimation of his films, which came only after his death. One is reminded of the British poet A.E. Houseman’s haunting “To An Athlete Dying Young,” in which he celebrates the benefits of death in the prime of life by noting, “Smart lad, to slip betimes away, From fields where glory does not stay.” Had Vigo lived for many more decades, who is to say what he might have produced? In the best-case scenario he would have stayed on the course that seemed so promising in the mid-1930s, buttressing his claim to cinematic immortality with a succession of ever escalating filmic brilliance. Or perhaps he might have gotten drawn into the system and made increasingly mainstream films that bore but faint gleams of his avant-garde sensibilities. Or perhaps he might have gone the way of Orson Welles, resolutely independent but constantly locked out of an industry that rarely appreciates nor tolerates those who don’t play by the rules. Ultimately, we will never know and can only lose ourselves in idle speculation--until we are drawn to the films once again.
|The Complete Jean Vigo Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The Complete Jean Vigo is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Aspect Ratio||1.19:1 (Taris, Zéro de conduite) / 1.33:1 (À propose de Nice, L’Atalante)|
|Audio||French PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 6, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion presents all four of Jean Vigo’s films in solid new transfers that make good use of the best available elements. When watching the films, one must bear in mind that not only are they between 78 and 82 years in age, but that they were not well treated when first released, with several of them suffering serious cuts that had to be restored over the years. Taris and À propos de Nice were transferred from 35mm fine-grain master positives, while Zéro de Conduite was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and a 35mm duplicate negative and L’Atalante was transferred from the 2001 Gaumont 35mm restoration negative. Despite significant digital restorations, all four of the films still bear the scars of time, including nicks, scratches, and a few missing frames, but overall their presentation is astoundingly good given all they have been through. Criterion has also been careful to maintain their proper aspect ratios, with Taris and Zéro de Conduite presented in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio that reflects the manner in which early sound-on-film cut into the standard 1.33:1 image. The soundtracks were mastered at 24-bit from 35mm positive and netagive optical soundtracks and digitally restored, giving them as much life as possible. Bear in mind that the soundtrack for Zéro de Conduite is pretty rough and amateurish, so no amount of restoration and digital clean-up will make it sound better than it is. The score for À propos de Nice was written and recorded by Marc Perrone in 2001.|
|Jean Vigo may not have been well respected during his lifetime, but Criterion has done everything in their power to make up for it with their extensive supplements. Each of the four films features a excellent and information audio commentary by Michael Temple, a professor of film and media and the University of London and author of Jean Vigo. For those who are new to Vigo’s work, Temple’s commentaries make it abundantly clear why he is so important to film history, and for those who are familiar with his work, Temple sheds new light on them that will make you appreciate them all the more. From the archives Criterion has dug up a lengthy episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps from 1964 that covers the entirety of Vigo’s career and interviews many of his friends and colleagues, as well as a conversation between filmmakers François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on L’Atalante following the film’s TV broadcast in 1965 (it is really more of an interview, with Rohmer asking Truffaut his thoughts on the film). From 2001 we have Les voyages de L’Atalante, film restorer and historian Bernard Eisenschitz’s fascinating documentary tracking the history of the film, and a video interview with director Otar Iosseliani about Vigo. There is also a brief animated tribute to Vigo by filmmaker Michel Gondry and alternate edits from À propos de Nice featuring footage cut by Vigo. The especially thick insert booklet includes essays by critics Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite, and Luc Sante.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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