These notes accompany the Jean Vigo Program on October 20, 21, and 22 in Theater 3.
October 5, 1934, the day Jean Vigo succumbed to tuberculosis and leukemia at twenty-nine years and six-months of age, may have been the most tragic day in film history (perhaps rivaled only by March 11, 1931, the day F. W. Murnau died in an auto accident). Vigo was the son of a fugitive anarchist and the father of one child, three short films, and one feature.
A propos de Nice (1930) was made after Vigo moved to the Riviera following an early bout with TB. His cinematographer (as on all of his films) was Boris Kaufman, brother of the Soviet documentarian/propagandist Dziga Vertov. (Kaufman later had a highly successful career working for the likes of Abel Gance, Elia Kazan, and Sidney Lumet). A propos de Nice is very much in keeping with the pattern Vertov had established with Man with a Movie Camera—scathing social commentary and striking imagery. As critic Eric Smoodin has suggested, Vigo’s film “attempts nothing less than the restructuring of the world by presenting it to us not so much by a seamless, logical narrative, but rather through a fast-paced collection of only tangentially related shots.” Taris (1931) is a playful eleven-minute homage to France’s leading swimmer.
Zero de conduit (Zero For Conduct) (1933) runs a mere forty-three minutes. Its depiction of a boarding school outraged the French bourgeoisie (something a great many of the best films of the 1930s managed to do), and the film was banned until after World War II. It had an enormous influence on François Truffaut’s Les Quatres Cents Coup (The 400 Blows) and the New Wave in general. Vigo proved himself decades ahead of his time in liberating his camera and breaking all the rules, and thus being the true scion of an anarchic father.
L’Atalante (1934), which sacrifices some of the visual poetry of Vigo’s short films for greater depth in character development and a coherent narrative—challenges the bourgeoisie in one of its most vulnerable areas: sexuality. Both Michel Simon and Jean Dasté (who also appears in Zero) had been in Jean Renoir’s Boudu sauve des Eaux (Boudou Saved from Drowning) (1932), and Dasté went on to play in two more of Renoir’s films. He also provided a direct link with Truffaut, appearing in three of his films in the 1970s. The German-born Dita Parlo is unforgettable as the German farm widow with whom Jean Gabin falls in love in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. Together they form a ménage-a-trois that is among cinema’s oddest and most memorable. Vigo’s health was already deteriorating and the film was beset by production problems, all of which was exacerbated by Vigo’s overall unhappiness with the story presented him by the producers. Miraculously, the film was completed and is (more-or-less) a masterpiece, but the director did not live long enough to attend its premiere.
I have always had difficulty (as an auteurist) in evaluating Jean Vigo because of the brevity of his career. At least with the early death of Murnau, there is a legacy of masterpieces (The Last Laugh, Sunrise, Tabu) and other major works (Nosferatu, Faust). Yet it’s impossible to know what changes there may have been in Vigo’s personality in succeeding decades. Jean Renoir, more than a decade Vigo’s senior, was still directing into the 1970s. Might Vigo have become more conventional or less inspired? Sadly, we will never know.
MoMA’s To Save and Project exhibition offers many treats this week. Of particular historical interest are restored prints of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919) being shown on Friday and Sunday, and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Page of Madness (1928), which will be shown Saturday night with a live orchestra. (We will be showing Gance’s 1938 remake of his famous antiwar masterpiece in February.) Teshigahara’s film is one of the most fascinating silent movies to come out of Japan, and this screening helps to remedy the lack of any Japanese films thus far in An Auteurist History of Film.