Jean Vigo’s first film A Propos de Nice begins with a blast of fireworks and then an aerial view of Nice. Made in 1930, it’s a subtly subversive silent film about 25 minutes long. Vigo’s camera moves very quickly as it captures various sights of this resort city maintained for the leisure time of the filthy rich. The film gives the impression that it captures a day at Nice beginning in the wee hours as various working class people prepare the holiday areas for the wealthy, and ending as dusk begins to arrive. We see waiters cleaning tables, street sweepers cleaning the streets, and then the wealthy begin to sally forth. The beribboned dogs of the wealthy taken for a walk along the promenade are in contrast to the shots of the cat sitting in a gutter full of rubbish.
A Propos de Nice is a very clever film, and Vigo manages to make some strong statements with his camera somehow revealing the revolting superficial layers of a sick society full of stark contrasts. First there’s a stark contrast between the wealthy and the working class. We see women scrubbing clothing while the rich are at play. While some rich visitors lounge in deck chairs, others are dedicated to various pursuits such as tennis, and bowls, and yachts glide gracefully in the harbour as their white sails pick up the breeze. Still other members of the wealthy set zoom around in racecars, or alight from their chauffeur driven cars, decked in furs. These shots are in contrast to the glimpses of the working class, boys that play hand games, and one impoverished boy who appears to have a diseased face.
Another emphasis in the film is the frivolity on hand. Some of the shots record a carnival as festive floats make their way through the streets of Nice. While these floats are supposed to be attractive, Vigo includes some grotesque shots and also captures the almost desperate gaiety of a handful of dancing girls. Another point Vigo makes is the transitory nature of life. At one point a shoe shiner polishes a shoe of one of his customers, but the shoe disappears. Another man lounging in a deck chair appears to burn to death under the rays of the sun. Another shot shows a man sporting a chest full of medals, and then we see a graveyard….
Vigo’s camera shows the viewer that there are two faces of Nice. One side of Nice is experienced by the privileged and the wealthy, whereas the other side—the real side of Nice—is experienced and endured by those who remain in poverty, serving their “masters.”