Jean Vigo - Director

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Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 26 April 1905, son of anarchist Miguel Alemreyda (Eugène Bonaventure de Vigo). Education: Attended a number of schools, including the Boys School of St. Cloud, until 1917; following death of father, attended boarding school in Nimes, under the name Jean Sales. Family: Married Elizabeth Lozinska, 1929, child: Luce. Father found dead under mysterious circumstances in jail cell, 1917; mother confined to a hospital, 1923. Career: Experienced health problems, entered clinic in Montpellier, then moved to Nice because of his tuberculosis, 1929; directed first film, A propos de Nice , 1930, then returned to live in Paris, 1932; Zéro de conduite removed from circulation by censors because of perceived "anti-France" content; became seriously ill with leukemia, 1933. Died: 5 October 1934.


Film as Director:

1930

À propos de Nice

1931

Taris ( Taris roi de l'eau ; Jean Taris champion de natation )

1933

Zéro de conduite

1934

L'Atalante



Publications


By VIGO: books—

The Complete Jean Vigo , London, 1983.

Oeuvres de cinéma: Films, scénarios, projets de films, texts sur le cinéma , edited by Pierre Lherminier, Paris, 1985.

On VIGO: books—

Kyrou, Ado, Amour, érotisme et cinéma , Paris, 1957.

Salès-Gomès, P.E., Jean Vigo , Paris, 1957; Los Angeles, 1971.

Agel, Henri, Miroirs de L'insolite dans le cinéma français , Paris, 1958.

Pornon, Charles, Le Rêve et le fantastique dans le cinéma français , Paris, 1959.

Buache, Freddy, and others, editors, Hommage à Jean Vigo , Lausanne 1962.

Lherminier, Pierre, Jean Vigo , Paria, 1967.

Lovell, Alan, Anarchist Cinema , London, 1967.

Martin, Marcel, Jean Vigo, Anthologie du Cinéma , vol. 2, Paris, 1967.

Smith, John, Jean Vigo , New York, 1971.

Simon, William G., The Films of Jean Vigo , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Andrew, Dudley, Film in the Aura of Art , Princeton, New Jersey, 1984.


On VIGO: articles—

Cavalcanti, Alberto, "Jean Vigo," in Cinema Quarterly (Edinburgh), Winter 1935.

Kracauer, Siegfried, "Jean Vigo," in Hollywood Quarterly , April 1947.

Weinberg, Herman G., "The Films of Jean Vigo," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), July 1947.

Agee, James, "Life and Work of Jean Vigo," in Nation (New York), 12 July 1947.

Zilzer, G., "Remembrances of Jean Vigo," in Hollywood Quarterly , Winter 1947/48.

"Vigo Issue" of Ciné-Club (Paris), February 1949.

"Vigo Issue" of Positif (Lyon), no. 7, 1953.

De Laurot, Edouard, and Jonas Mekas, "An Interview with Boris Kaufman," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1955.

Salès-Gomès, P.E., "Le Mort de Jean Vigo," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August/September 1955.

Ashton, D.S., "Portrait of Vigo," in Film (London), December 1955.

Tranchant, François, "Dossier Jean Vigo," in Image et Son (Paris), October 1958.

"Vigo Issue" of Premier Plan (Lyon), no. 19, 1961.

Chevassu, François, "Jean Vigo," in Image et Son (Paris), February 1961.

Ellerby, John, "The Anarchism of Jean Vigo," in Anarchy 6 (London), August 1961.

"Vigo Issue" of Études Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 1–52, 1966.

Mills, B., "Anarchy, Surrealism, and Optimism in Zéro de conduite ," in Cinema (London), no. 8, 1971.

Teush, B., "The Playground of Jean Vigo," in Film Heritage (New York), Fall 1973.

Special issue, in Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 64, 1979.

Baldwin, D., L'Atalante and the Maturing of Jean Vigo," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1985.

Wood, Robin, " L'Atalante : The Limits of Liberation," in CineAction! (Toronto), no. 10, 1987.

Bierinckx, C., "Pioniere des schwarza frikanischen films," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 16, no. 5, May 1988.

Painlevé, J., "Sur un point de détail curieux à l'usage exclusif de vigolâtres érudits," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), October/November 1989.

Thompson, David J., " L'Atalante ," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1990.

Conomos, John, "Voyaging with Vigo on L'Atalante," in Filmnews , vol. 21, no. 4, May 1991.

Traser, M., "Jean Vigo," in Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 31, no. 9, September 1995.

Temple, Michael, "Dreaming of Vigo," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 8, no. 11, November 1998.


* * *


It is difficult to think of another director who made so few films and yet had such a profound influence on other filmmakers. Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice , his first film, is his contribution to the French surrealist movement. The film itself is a direct descendant of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Certainly, his films make political statements similar to those seen in Vertov's work. Vertov's documentary celebrates a people's revolution, while Vigo's chastises the bourgeois vacationers in a French resort town. Even more importantly, both films revel in the pyrotechnics of the camera and the editing room. They are filled with dizzying movement, fast cutting, and the juxtaposition, from frame to frame, of objects that normally have little relation to each other. In yet another link between the two directors, Vertov's brother photographed À propos de Nice , as well as Vigo's other three films.

À propos de Nice provides a look at a reality beyond the prosaic, common variety that so many films give us. The movie attempts nothing less than the restructuring of our perception of the world by presenting it to us not so much through a seamless, logical narrative, but rather through a fast-paced collection of only tangentially related shots.

After À propos de Nice , Vigo began combining his brand of surrealism with the poetic realism that would later be so important to a generation of French directors, such as Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné. For his second film, he made another documentary, Taris , about France's champion swimmer. Here Vigo takes his camera underwater as Taris clowns at the bottom of a pool and blows at the lens. Taris certainly has some striking images, but it is only eleven minutes long. Indeed, if Vigo had died in 1931, after finishing Taris , instead of in 1934 (and given the constantly precarious state of his health, this would not have been at all unlikely), he would have been remembered, if at all, as a director who had shown great potential, yet who could hardly be considered a major talent.

Vigo's third film, however, secured his place in film history. Zéro de conduite stands out as one of the cinema's most influential works. Along with films such as Sagan's Mädchen in Uniform and Wyler's These Three , it forms one of the more interesting and least studied genres of the 1930s—the children's boarding school film. Although it is Vigo's first fiction film, it continues the work he began with À propos de Nice. That first movie good-naturedly condemns the bourgeoisie, showing the rich as absolutely useless, their primary sin being banality rather than greed or cruelty. In Zéro de conduite , teachers, and not tourists, are the representatives of the bourgeoisie. But like the Nice vacationers, they are not so much malicious as they are simply inadequate; they instruct their schoolboys in nothing important and prize the school's suffocating regulations above all else. Vigo lets the schoolboys rebel against this sort of mindless monotony. They engage in an apocalyptic pillow fight, and then bombard their teachers with fruit during a stately school ceremony. The film's anarchic spirit led to its being banned in France until 1945. But during the 1950s, it became one of the inspirations for the French New Wave directors. In subject matter, it somewhat resembles Truffaut's 400 Blows. But it is the film's style—the mixture of classical Hollywood visuals with the dreamlike illogic of slow motion, fast action, and quick cutting—that particularly influenced a new generation of filmmakers.

Vigo's last film, L'Atalante , is his masterpiece. It is a love story that takes place on a barge, with Vigo once again combining surrealism with poetic realism. The settings are naturalistic and the characters lower-class, and so bring to mind Renoir's poetic realist films such as Toni and Les Bas-Fonds. There is also an emphasis on the imagination and on the near-sacredness of banal objects that places the film strongly in the tradition of such surrealist classics as Un Chien andalou. After Juliette leaves Jean, the barge captain, Jean jumps into the river and sees his wife's image everywhere around him. The underwater sequence not only makes the viewer think of Taris , but also makes us aware that we are sharing Jean's obsession with him. This dreamy visualization of a character's thoughts brings to mind the priority that the surrealists gave to all mental processes. The surrealists prized, too, some of the more mundane aspects of everyday life, and Vigo's film is full of ordinary objects that take on (for Juliette) a magical status. They are only puppets, or fans, or gramophones piled in a heap in the room of Père Jules, Jean's old assistant, but Juliette has spent her entire life in a small town, and for her, these trinkets represent the mysteries of faraway places. They take on a special status, the banal being raised to the level of the exotic.

Despite the movie's links to two film movements, L'Atalante defies categorization. It is a masterpiece of mood and characterization, and, along with Zéro de conduite , it guarantees Vigo's status as a great director. But he was not granted that status by the critical community until years after his death. Because of the vagaries of film exhibition and censorship, Vigo was little known while he was making films. He received nowhere near the acclaim given to his contemporaries Jean Renoir and René Clair.

—Eric Smoodin



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