The Jean Vigo Short Film Collection
France (1930-33) Dir. Jean Vigo
A name that will have bypassed many except the hardened cinephiles, Jean Vigo was a prodigious talent whose short life – he died aged 29 in 1934 from tuberculosis – and even shorter filmography have proven to be hugely influential on New Wave filmmakers.
Vigo’s early life was a fascinating series of events which could almost be a film script in itself. The son of a Spanish anarchist, Vigo spent his early childhood on the run, as a result had to attend boarding school under a pseudonym because of his father’s infamy! A money gift from his father-in-law allowed Vigo to buy his own camera and the first three short films are found in this collection.
À propos de Nice (1930)
Apparently, this surreal travelogue is in fact a scathing satire on the social divide between the rich and poor in the coastal city of Nice. Of course, if you are a complete thicko like me this will soar way over your head since little about the narrative is immediately obvious, unless you happen to be on the same wavelength as Vigo to be able to piece all the random images together. Granted we see hardworking cafe staff and others preparing for what we later learn is a street parade, while the well-heeled social elite stroll about the promenades in their refinery as if they own place, but this comes across more as a simple account of the daily activities of the city than an acerbic polemic.
Even if you can’t work out Vigo’s true objectives this film is a visual treat with many camera and editing techniques which have since become part of filmmaking vocabulary. There is a sense of a film student playing with every editing tool for the first time but since it was groundbreaking for the time, it is forgiven. From the opening series of impressive aerial shots of Nice onwards, Vigo incorporates abstract camera angles, speed manipulation and juxtaposition of imagery for both comic and serious effect.
A slow motion shot of girls dancing is pretty much the original version of what we see in pop videos these days; Vigo also cheekily delivers a literal rendition of the “undressing a woman with his eyes” scenario including nudity, demonstrating how lax European censorship was than Hollywood.
Despite being personally baffled, this is a superbly shot and skilfully edited slice of visual poetry that will have different meanings and levels of understanding according to taste and perception. It is unquestionably a prescient example of cinema as an art form which all aspiring filmmakers should see.
Taris, roi de l’eau (1931)
In a perfunctory nine minutes Vigo takes us up close and personal with French Olympic swimmer Jean Taris (trivia time: Taris came second in the 400m freestyle event to future King of the Serials Buster Crabbe in the 1932 Olympics!). Employing innovative techniques including slow motion, shutter speed changes, reversing and underwater filming, we are given an exclusive guide to the various styles and techniques Taris uses in his swimming, explaining how each body part works in the different strokes.
Again, it is the editing, camerawork and overall presentation that makes this a fascinating watch, not in the least since Taris’s techniques have been vastly superseded over the past eighty years!
Zero For Conduct (Zéro de conduite) (1933)
The most conventional of the three films is a 42 minute “short” about a rebellious group of schoolboys is based loosely on Vigo’s own schooldays and went on to influence Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s if…. Using ex-classmates as the models for the ringleaders and the prison guards where his father was incarcerated for the teachers, Vigo casts his wry and abstract eye over the educational system with an offbeat irreverence rich with trenchant opprobrium.
The brief run time limits the film to little more than a series of vignettes instead of a focused narrative depicting the simmering war between teachers and pupils, and not all make sense. Even the dialogue tells us little about the characters other than to establish their personalities, ensuring the adults are portrayed as ridiculously as possible. The headmaster for example is a short chap (either a child actor or a midget) while the others are tall, obsequious buffoons, instructed to ensure the troublesome troupe do not disrupt the upcoming Celebration Day.
A new teacher who would rather entertain the lads by impersonating Chaplin, or take them into town and chase woman along the street provides some welcome light hearted humour, otherwise the jokes (if they exist) are likely to be too obscure for most tastes. If we are to laugh it is at the expense of the stuffy authority figures who we are to assume we will see get theirs by the end of the film. Sadly, the rebellion is rather anti-climatic – due to time and budget constraints – but Vigo’s intent is made clear enough.
Aside from a poetic slow motion scene when the uprising begins and one reverse shot, Vigo doesn’t stretch himself on the production front which will disappoint those hoping to see more of his innovative camera tricks. This may have played a part in the vicious response both Vigo and this film received on its debut although the subject matter was the reason it was banned for thirteen years.
In the case of any extraordinary talent passing way ahead of their time, it is difficult to imagine what Jean Vigo would have achieved had he lived. Would he have been able to successfully cross over to the mainstream (or somewhere close) or would he have gone deeper into his own esoteric and surreal world while reinventing filming techniques?
Vigo was certainly a unique talent and while I didn’t quite get everything he was trying to say in these shorts I do appreciate his obvious inventive flair and keen eye for creating cinematic poetry. An acquired taste, largely for the hardcore arthouse and experimental crowd.