#141: A BRIEF CAREER. As the written library of cinema history and criticism has exploded over the last decades, only a small amount of it has been devoted to the work of the young French master, Jean Vigo. Perhaps not surprising, as his entire surviving work only amounts to something less than three hours of film: a silent short, “A Propos de Nice,” visibly influenced by the Surrealist movement; “Taris,” a commercial short with sound about the champion swimmer Jean Taris; and his landmark works, the anarchic forty-five minute “Zero de Conduite,” about a schoolboy revolt; and the lyrical feature-length film “L’Atalante,” about a newlywed couple living on an old barge. They were all of them made with tape and staples and in an almighty rush; the continuity shows the gaps imposed by limited time and budget, rather like novels from which whole chapters have fallen out; the rough quality of the early sound equipment makes them impossible to understand without subtitles. “A Propos de Nice” is a first-timer’s attempt, ingenious as it is; “Taris” is basically a homework assignment, whipped out with a sense of humor. But “Zero de Conduite “and “L’Atalante” are two of the memorable and indelibly personal works of early cinema; they have retained their delights when other films made far more recently begin to require a bit of patience.
Vigo’s background was unusual, which clung to him just as stubbornly as he embraced it. His father was an intended revolutionary who took the name Almereyda, an anagram of “y a de la merde”—“there is shit.” (Almereyda made a bomb, intended for a judge who’d put him in jail, and then published an article about his intent; the bomb was left in a pissoir, where it failed to explode. They were strange times.) The father was eventually strangled in jail with shoelaces he’d bought for his son’s shoes, and the taint of Almereyda’s reputation followed the son throughout his life. Young Vigo was farmed out to godparents and sent away to school under an assumed name, and this strange amalgam of experiences lies not far below the surface of “Zero de Conduite.” The scent of anarchism and impudence pervades the movie; so does a visible eagerness to try out what the medium had to offer, with bits of animation, slow-motion sequences and one sympathetic teacher who mimics Chaplin. But when one of the students turns on an officious teacher and says “Monsieur le professeur, je vous dis merde”—one of the most famous lines of early French cinema—the memory of Vigo’s father acted as an irritant. The film got booted around—some enthusiasm, some dismay—and was shortly after banned.
By luck, the rich amateur producer Jacques-Louis Nounez, who had financed “Zero,” stuck by Vigo and steered him to a script he’d received, about a young married couple and their trials living aboard a river barge. The script creaked badly, and seeing what Vigo made of it is one of the pleasures of reading about “L’Atalante.” Here too we are reminded how wise (or fortunate) Vigo was in his two major collaborators: the adventurous and ingenious cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who shot all of Vigo’s films and who went on to shoot “On the Waterfront,” Lumet’s film of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Pawnbroker,” and who worked well into the sixties; and Maurice Jaubert, who scored both “Zero” and “L’Atalante” and several of the other classic French films of the thirties. And in “L’Atalante” Vigo had the actor Michel Simon on hand to create one of the great characters of the early screen, the muttering old crazy bargeman, Pere Jules. From the utterly conventional scenario Vigo created one of the lovely lyric stories of the cinema, as the newly married couple are carried by the river past their misunderstandings and separations to reconciliation. After a faltering run, the movie was re-edited and retitled to cash in on a treacly popular song, “Le Chaland Qui Passe,” in which bastardized form it limped into and out of the theatres. A few days after its run ended, Vigo, who had been tubercular for years, died; he was 29. His critical acclaim was entirely posthumous.
One of the pleasures of Vigo’s work, with “L’Atalante” particularly, is seeing the French landscape of the thirties, just as we might experience it with “Boudu Saved from Drowning” (which featured Michel Simon as another wonderfully slobby character) and much of the early Jean Renoir, and the photographs of Atget and Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau. Of photographs, Doisneau said, “Over time, they acquire the evocative power of a little dried flower discovered between the pages of a book,” and that sense of the past, combined with the unruly life of the characters, is part of what I love in Vigo’s work. Some of these images remain as evocative as any yet created in the cinema, and a lasting defense of the abilities and possibilities of black and white.
Of the few books on Vigo, one remains indispensable: P.E. Salles-Gomes’s Jean Vigo, published in French by Editions du Seuil in 1957, and in English by University of California Press in 1971. It’s thorough, observant and intelligent throughout: a classic itself. All of Vigo’s work can be found online, but it’s worth buying the Criterion collection The CompleteJean Vigo, which is not terribly expensive and has some decent extras as well as the best restoration of image and sound.