Thoughts On: Vigo Four

Vigo Four

This is a short series exploring the films of Jean Vigo as well as aspects of his life. It covers his three shorts and one feature from oldest to newest. Enjoy...

À Propos De Nice - Radicals & Scathing Montage

A satirical city symphony 'Concerning Nice'.

Jean Vigo, born in Paris and into poverty during 1905, was the son of a Spanish activist. This man was Eugène Bonaventure Jean-Baptiste Vigo, who renamed himself, Miguel Almereyda. A militant journalist, activist, anarchist and later socialist, Almereyda founded and wrote within his own newspapers. A character maybe best defined by his chosen name, "Almereyda" is an anagram for "y'a la merde", which means, "there's shit".

Through one of his newspapers, Le Bonnet Rouge (The Red Bonnet), Almereyda was critical of WWI and of extreme right-wingers. Despite the political activism and bias within the paper, Le Bonnet Rouge was granted governmental subsidies because it denounced violent protest against the war and (presumably) allowed for certain governmental figures to politic and manage relationships between the then left and right. However, what Almereyda did with this money granted by the government is questionable as he probably used it to fund both his paper and personal life, allowing him to live lavishly.

The controversy surrounding Almereyda reached greater heights when his paper published work of Lenin's that involved him discussing his goals with Russia. This was not well received; Almereyda was deemed to be colluding with a man who was seen to be an agent of France's enemy at the time, the Germans, and so he lost his governmental funding. Things worsened for Almereyda, however, when his company was found with a 100,000 franc check for a German bank account in 1917. This acted as a confirmation that he was colluding with the enemy and so he was sent to prison for treason, where, after being transferred out of Paris, he was soon found dead. Whilst it is said that he hung himself with boot laces, autopsies revealed that Almereyda was almost certainly murdered.

It is by this time that Jean Vigo would only have been around 12-years-old. He and his mother, whilst they had often been on the run with Almereyda, had to go into hiding. Vigo was then sent to boarding school under a fake name: Jean Sales. But, by 1922, he had moved back to Paris with his mother where he attended university - now under his real name again. A few years later, Vigo had met his wife and shortly worked in the Franco Film Studio as a camera assistant. Briefly after this period, Vigo had acquired a second-hand camera and befriended the Russian cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, as well as his brother, Mikhail. Boris Kaufman, in later years, worked on films such as On The Water Front and 12 Angry Men, and was also the brother of David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman, but also, Dziga Vertov.

With Vertov of course being one of the most significant filmmakers of all time thanks to his Soviet Montage film theory and the masterpiece that is Man With A Movie Camera, Vigo demonstrates ties with Russian culture through his collaboration with Boris Kaufman. This then cites the impression that his father, Almereyda, had on him. Not only was Vigo considered a Marxist, but he too was a social radical of sorts and would soon become a controversial figure in France through his films.

However, without straying ahead, with Vigo's collaboration with Kaufman and with his second-hand camera under-arm, he worked on a script for a short film alongside Boris and the pairs' wives. This script came to be À Propos De Nice. To sum this film up, it is probably best to turn to Vigo himself:

In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial… the film develops into a generalised view of the vulgar pleasures that come under the sign of the grotesque, of the flesh, and of death. These pleasures are the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution. 

What is clear is that À Propos De Nice was intended to be a harsh criticism of France, one that called for a revolution to correct the vulgarity that Vigo meant to capture through a montage which contrasted the lifestyles of the rich and the poor that reside within Nice.

Very clearly inspired by the work of Dziga Vertov and other Soviet Montage directors such as Eisenstein, À Propos De Nice is a social city symphony that utilises juxtaposition and abstract camera movement in collaboration with elements of documentary. In such, this narrative compares the luxuries and games that the higher class engage with the work and simple games of the poor, all before thrusting us into a carnival that's juxtaposed with religious statues. Some of the most striking shots in this narrative would then be the following:

One of the most iconic shots would of course be the first of the naked women. This sits within a sequence that is focused on rich people eating outside and engaging in various activities on the beach. Here, Vigo's camera is often focused on the materials of these people whilst also sexualising them with a focus on legs - all of which ends on the image of the naked woman that follows a dissolve that sees her change dress many times over.

This sequences then seemingly means to strip down the rich to their most basic and true facade; that being one that is focused on material objects that attract attention to their bodies - often in a sexual manner. This short piece of montage dehumanises the rich to a certain degree (see how Vigo cuts the woman's face in half with his frame) and is a pretty vulgar means of criticism, one that Vigo probably saw as reflective of the lifestyle of the upper classes.

We see further examples of this unforgiving criticism when Vigo uses the footage of the crocodiles in juxtaposition with a sequence that depicts the rich enjoying a day at the beach and sunbathing...

This piece of montage is repeated in other elements of the film - just like the strip sequence is. Later, we see a woman compared to an emu or ostrich and a man getting his shoe, then bare foot, shined. All of this is in contrast to imagery of the working class, leaving these moments poignant pieces of commentary on social inequality.

The mentioned focus on sexualisation transfers over the carnival sequence that is best captured by the 'performance' given by these dancers. This of course extends Vigo's exploration of escapism in a setting that may have acted as a meeting ground for the rich and poor. In such, he uses this carnival to further depict vulgarity and absurdity through scathing (and somewhat unethical) cinematic language.

One of the most controversial pieces of juxtaposition certainly involves this statue, which, shot with a similar framing to the nude woman, is compared to the carnival sequence and the depicted dancers as the camera moves towards a puddle in its lap.

The use of this dirty water connotes obvious crass and rather gross associations. And with this image as one of the lasting ones, the overall message of À Propos De Nice calls for a complete reversal of lifestyles imbued with a material focus that distracts and promotes (in a particular sense) death. Death as a theme referenced by Vigo implies that the vulgarity captured by this montage refuses to acknowledge the lives of the impoverished, but also of people's own selves. In such, the core concept of escapism that lies at the heart of this narrative is one with ties to, what Vigo saw to be, a lack of realist existential thought in French society; a consideration of ones own life and purpose. This seems to be why sexuality and flesh are the focus of this film: the idea of propagating oneself and contributing to the continuation of humanity as depicted are manipulated by society into a mere spectacle and distraction. Revolution is then called for not just by Vigo, but by nature, which erodes away at the world surrounding the self-indulgent who blind themselves to death's knocking.

Whilst there is a debate to be had about the ethics of this film as a documentary, it is undeniable that the design of this montage is incredibly articulate in its condemnation of a society. Remembering that Vigo himself came from poverty and a tumultuous childhood elevates this first film of his as a striking incite into his character, one that is already combining his own experiences and philosophies with an expressive cinematic sensibility focused on realism and radical film forms.

The next film we will be looking at in this series will be Tarus. So, to end this post, what are your thoughts on this film and the subjects we delved into?

Taris - Poetic Documentary 

A poetic depiction of a world champion swimmer.

Taris is a short documentary about the French swimming champion, multiple medal winner and world record holder, Jean Taris, in which he teaches a lesson in swimming. It is through this film and some mesmerising imagery capturing Taris under water that Jean Vigo furthers his approach to poetic realism and documentary. He also sustains some amount of commentary on French society with a little montage depicting an overweight person in a pool, floundering, throwing his body around, and a swimming instructor 'teaching' people how to swim out of the water. In fact, it's very easy to consider Taris as a film through which Vigo maybe tried to inspire or inform through an influential, high-standing figure.

However, what certainly overshadows the subtext of this narrative is its aesthetic beauty. With brilliant close-ups and cinematography that captures the textures and atmosphere of both a swimming pool and a body of water, Vigo finds mesmerising beauty in the seemingly simple act of swimming. Moreover, the slow and reverse motion that demonstrate the intricate forms and processes of Taris' movement are entirely astounding.

What Taris then serves to be is an excellent film through which to understand the idea of a poetic documentary as well as its purposes. Whilst an average expository documentary that simply informs (which Taris is to a certain extent) only means to educate in a direct and calculated manner, poetic forms of documentary are intended to be much more ambiguous and intellectually/emotionally engaging. The end goal of poetic documentaries is then exposition through spectacle that actually reinforces the message of a narrative - a great example of this in Taris being the final image that implies that swimming pervades Taris' whole life.

This brings us back to the idea that Vigo aimed to inspire French people through a depiction of a successful and dedicated figure in a field that is easily considered a recreational pass time; he didn't simply mean to tell his audience to swim and find greater meaning and purpose in the leisurely activity, but entice them into a realm of thought whereby they choose to engage the act of swimming and consider it in a more complex and even profound way.

All in all, Taris is an enthralling film as well as a commentary on film form and film content that marks a significant aspect of Jean Vigo's style and approach to cinema.

Zéro De Conduite - Timeless Frustration

A controversial depiction of repressive school systems and rebellion.

Zéro De Conduite, or Zero For Conduct, is a semi-autobiographical film that draws from Jean Vigo's experience in boarding school as a young child, and it uses a somewhat abstract narrative to project a comedic, surreal and child-like story of a rebellious uprising against boarding school teachers as lead by four students.

Made for 200,000 francs and with non-professional actors, this film can be seen as a precursor to the Italian Neorealist movement of the post-war era. Unfortunately, Zero For Conduct does suffer from a few problems due to budgetary constraints - the main problem concerning the sound design. This leaves a tension between a silent film and a talkie tone/aesthetic whilst reducing some of the abstract elements of the narrative to incoherent sequences. And this detail is not helped by the sometimes awkward edit that is scattered and lacking of clarity - a flaw that Vigo had to suffer so that he could keep the run time down. An example of this incoherence would be the 'magic trick' with a ball in the classroom. This sequence lacks a strong sense of character motivation, a motif that leaks through the entirety of the script, which is initially jarring, but begins to make sense as the style of the narrative becomes clearer.

It is then once the story settles and it becomes clear that this is a surreal film that its many moving parts begin to make a lot more sense. In such, the realism merging with surrealism presented by the conflict between the story's structure and production establishes Zero For Conduct as a unique film for its time that, as with all of Vigo's films, served as a medium for social commentary.

It is clear that Vigo designed this narrative to contain these elements of spectacle and realism through his reference to Chaplin with an imitation of The Tramp that one of the more lenient school masters performs. Much like Chaplin, Vigo draws upon an incredibly difficult childhood and funnels it into his narratives. A good point of comparison that can be made between Vigo and Chaplin would then be through Chaplin's The Kid.

In the penultimate sequence of The Kid, Chaplin jumps into a surreal dream world in which he dies, goes to a heavenly version of reality, causes trouble as a promiscuous angel and then is shot by the police. We see a similar approach to narrative in the final sequence of Zero For Conduct where, following a lecture from the headmaster, there is a hard cut to the following night where all the children destroy their room. This is the most mesmerising sequence and makes about as much narrative sense as Chaplin's dream sequence - though it has to be said that Chaplin structures his surreal sequence into the narrative with a much stronger projection of linear sense.

Underlying both the dream sequence and pillow fight sequence is a poetic evocation of impressionism, an approach to story which captures a subjective perception, one that has basis in reality and in turn comments on it. In such, the sequence from The Kid uses The Tramp's paternal miseries to explore the hopes of an impoverished parent whilst the pillow fight from Zero For Conduct captures the frustrated dreams of suppressed and controlled young boys.

What is significant about Zero For Conduct alone is that it manages to apply this narrative concept to the entire form of a film instead of reserving it for a dream sequence that is easily swallowed and glanced past as 'just a dream'. We see this through the camera movement and the edit; scenes like the penultimate lecture in the classroom with the panning, observational camera and the fractured jump into the next sequence. And, as implied, there is a strong sense of impressionism within this film; it ties a realist sensibility into the surreal sequences by capturing the perspective of a child and the likeness of memory (memories which we can assume belong to Vigo). This is what makes Zero For Conduct such a lasting and unique film; it captured an approach to story that not only played with the form of cinema, but used this in an effective and culturally impactful manner.

The latter idea is pretty undeniable when we consider the fact that Zero For Conduct was banned in France after shocking many audiences and offending split critics. The reason why this film was banned comes down to its ludicrous depiction of rebellion and clear commentary on societal paradigms involving a ruling minority oppressing and controlling a powerless majority. And it's this sentiment, this frustration, that is the strongest element of this narrative. The fact that it got under the skin of so many certainly seems to validate the directness and poignancy of the narrative. And adding to the cultural significance of this film is certainly its influence on the New Wave auteur, François Truffaut, in his film The 400 Blows - which not only carries the same core emotion of frustration in a young boy, but directly references Zero For Conduct in its class room sequences.

In conclusion, whilst Zero For Conduct is a dated film with a few faults, it manages to capture a unique aesthetic, structure and approach to story that projects timeless themes and in turn allows this movie to be, in many respects, transcendent nonetheless.

L'Atalante - Unspectacularity

Newly wed to a boat skipper, a small-town girl travels down the river Seine with his small crew.

Seen from a distance and without context, L'Atalante is a simple film that poignantly explores young love. It has flawed technical attributes in regard to sound design and the edit, but is nonetheless captivating and impressive. However, when we begin to consider the films from the early talkie period of the 30s, we can begin to see why this film is often regarded as one of the greatest pictures ever made.

Awash with Hollywood classics such as Frankenstein, Scarface, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Ninotchka, Bringing Up Baby, Swing Time, King Kong, The Invisible Man and Duck Soup, the 30s are overflowing with timeless stories from all genres. And this is what helped established Hollywood's Golden Age; there was a rich period of fantastical storytelling that only grew in its capacity for wish-fulfilment and spectacle as we moved into the 40s and 50s. A significant aspect of this growth was of course the studio system which, in certain senses, transformed Hollywood into a vast manufacturing factory. And as the metaphor suggests, the productions of the studio system where subject to standards - formal, aesthetic and story-wise - which leaves the 30s as a time in which films weren't very distinct from one another. In short, there was no Kubrick, no Scorsese, no Wes Anderson, no unique auteur which hugely differentiated themselves from main stream in a lasting manner.

This lack of style and individuality in 30s filmmaking was challenged only by a few - and Vigo was one of these. Often, regarded in the same capacity as Dreyer and Renoir, Vigo developed a unique style that shattered standards of continuity, mise en scene and structure; a style which is most evident in his one and only feature, L'Atalante. With a powerful use of leading lines and negative space, Vigo constructed this film with Boris Kaufman in spite of many restrictions and troubles. In such, a large reason why there is such a powerful use of the voidal sky and water throughout this film was because of weather; Vigo couldn't shoot the ground because it started to snow in later parts of production. This leaves Vigo's style to be one defined by realism as, despite shooting some interior scenes within a studio, he endeavoured to capture the real world in an unspectacular fashion - just as he had in his previous shorts (À Propos De Nice in particular). Vigo even  shot certain sequences in a documentary-esque fashion in the tail end of production when he was running out of money and under pressure from the studio.

And on the note of restrictions and troubles, Vigo ran into a lot of difficulty getting this film made - but even more in post production. He initially wanted to work on an original story, but, considering his lack of previous successes and abundance of controversy, his producer give him a banal script that somewhat resembled L'Atalante. After re-writing and shooting the script with monetary pressures, Vigo's initial cuts where disregarded by the studio and chopped down due to unsatisfied distributors at Gaumont. Over the years, L'Atalante has in fact been through numerous re-edits - up until as recently as 2001.

The reason for the initial studio interference comes down to Vigo's health; he simply wasn't able to fight for his film. A detail that we haven't mentioned so far in our look at the films of Vigo is that he had tuberculosis - in all probability, because of his impoverished life. Throughout his work on his films, especially L'Atalant which was shot over many months and often outside in the winter, Vigo had health issues. After a rough cut had been constructed he had to take a break due to a fever he had developed, and so took a holiday then returned to Paris with his family. It's here however, where he remained bedridden, unable to work on a final cut of his film, until he died later in the year.

It is often speculated that, as much as Vigo's father influenced him and his career, so did his struggle with tuberculosis. When we look back to his exploration of poverty and the upper classes in À Propos De Nice, it's evident that Vigo is making a film that seemingly comes from every facet of his life with strands of anarchy, socialist/Marxist critique and with sympathy for the average person. And this same flow of creativity exists in L'Atalante; we see this through the depiction of the cats and the terrible living conditions of our characters, knowing that Vigo was far from wealthy and that his father often had many stray cats in their home when he was a boy. Again, we could make a comparison to Chaplin, but it's also very clear that Vigo's style and the uniqueness of this film comes directly from the pressure of all kinds that he faced.

So, with Vigo's backstory at hand, the simple romance captured by L'Atalante elevates it into a much more poignant and genuine piece of work. In such, Vigo had evolved over his short career, transitioning from an outspoken and highly critical montage to a poetic-realist romance that is essentially about loyalty and trust, themes developed from a purely mundane and unspectacular perspective.

This is seemingly what defines Vigo as one of the most significant figures of the early talkie period. He swam against the tide with unspectacular films and an unspectacular career that were nonetheless unique, innovative and true of his character. This is exactly what we saw reprised and capitalised on during the French New Wave with Vigo and his films being an incredible influence of the auteurs of the time. It was then the likes of Godard, Varda and Truffaut that continued on Vigo's play with form, editing, continuity and camera work; his approach to social critique and his application of realism that stemmed from his own life and personality. So, as much as we have to appreciate the New Wave films of the late 50s and 60s, in turn, its influence on New Hollywood and beyond, we also have to consider Vigo, an auteur developing a shade of modern cinema a quarter of a decade before hand.

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