Films At Your Library: The Complete Jean Vigo
During his tragically short life Jean Vigo (1905-1934) became one of the most influential filmmakers of the 1930's. Vigo, the son of a militant anarchist strangled in his prison cell, grew up mostly on the run or in boarding school under a false name. He eventually fell into filmmaking, but died in 1934 at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. I recently spent some time working through Criterion's recently released Complete Jean Vigo. Complete works sound daunting, but given Vigo's short life, the collection consists of 2 shorts (A Propos de Nice & Taris), a 40 minute film (Zero de Conduite), and one full length feature (L'Atalante).
Vigo was a prankster with a camera. The films never take themselves too seriously, though somehow always manage to be subversive. The boarding school boys of Zero de Conduite are never up to any good. In L'Atalante the cabin boy and Jules play tricks on one another and cheat at checkers. Perhaps the playfulness that weaves in and out of harsh realism is what makes Vigo such an influential figure in what would eventually become the French New Wave.
While at the Art Institute of Chicago I happened to catch a photo gallery of Ralph Meatyard, an American photographer best known for his eerily beautiful black and white photographs of dolls and children wearing masks. For Meatyard, "dolls represented a physical human presence, whether employed in a scene alongside people or instead of people. He used masks to universalize his sitters rather than make portraits of individuals." Vigo also portrays these things- a grotesque costume parade in A Propos de Nice, a creepy puppet in L'Atalante.
But Vigo also evokes these human sentiments through swimmers flailing underwater, girls dancing on balconies, sailor tattoos, simple magic tricks, and mischief. The images stick with you. Camera tricks that might seem archaic by today's standards produce a sense of light wonder in the hands of Vigo. This is true whether its the juvenile humor of women's clothing quickly stripped away through a series of film dissolves in A Propos de Nice, the swimmer Tarvis shooting out of the water through reverse filming, or the dreamlike slow-motion insurrectionist pillow fight in Zero de Conduite.
L'Atalante (1934) is a romance movie like no other. It beautifully explores the fragility of new love. Jean, the new husband is the captain of a barge and brings his new wife Juliette along on a trip that also functions as a sort of honeymoon. The animosity between the newlyweds grows as life's responsibilities and each other's shortcomings drive them further apart. Jean is practical while Juliette yearns for adventure. The more they grow apart the deeper they eventually realize how much they need one another. They keep each other afloat, making the canal setting a wonderful metaphor.
For fans of foreign language classics and French New Wave, the complete Jean Vigo is not to be missed. Thanks to Criterion, these films have been beautifully restored so that a new generation of film lovers can enjoy these classic works.
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