Jean Vigo by P.E. Salles Gomes

“He had succeeded in introducing subversive elements into film.”

French director Jean Vigo produced just a handful of largely reviled films during his brief lifetime, and yet now, more than 70 years after his death, film historians agree that Vigo made a considerable contribution to the industry. It’s taken a long time to get this sort of acknowledgment. It’s an acknowledgment that Vigo certainly didn’t get before he died at age 29. During his lifetime, according to Brazilian film critic and historian P.E. Salles Gomes, Vigo was ignored and dismissed as a filmmaker, and quite possibly some of the reason for this can be found in Jean Vigo’s troubled past.

Salles Gomes’ book Jean Vigo includes a chapter on Vigo’s parents, and this is an essential subject, since Vigo’s father was anarchist Miguel Almeyreda (an anagram of y’a (de) la merde–“there is shit”). Almeyreda–whose real name was Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo began living in Paris on his own as a teenager, and after a short stint in prison, Almeyreda firmly nested with the Parisian anarchist community. Almeyreda co-founded the radical paper, La Guerre Sociale. According to Salles Gomes, in 1912, Almeyreda appeared to abandon his anarchist beliefs. He became a socialist, lived in a private mansion surrounded by servants and began La Bonnet Rouge. The author cautions, however, that some of the stories about Almeyreda appear at the very least exaggerated, and acknowledges that it’s impossible to sort the facts out without the “distortions of political polemics.” Within a few years, Almeyreda became involved in a political scandal and was murdered in jail.

After his father’s murder, Jean Vigo’s relatives were forced to shield the child from scandal–hence the name change back to Vigo. One chapter provides great detail about Vigo’s short, difficult life after his father’s murder. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that his childhood experiences infiltrated his films, but it’s uncertain how much Vigo’s parentage affected the treatment of his films: A Propos de Nice (1929), Taris, Roi de l’eau (1931) Zero de Conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934). During his lifetime, Vigo’s films–with their anarchist vision–were considered subversive and dangerous. A Propos de Nice contained “revolutionary ideology,” Zero de Conduite with its anti-authoritarian message was banned, and L’Atalante was renamed and chopped to pieces by the distributors during Vigo’s final illness. Salles Gomes argues that certain myths arose around Vigo’s films. For example, it was generally thought that the censors ripped L’Atalante to shreds, but Gaumont films was responsible for eviscerating Vigo’s last film.

The book provides superior analysis of Vigo’s films and includes many, many quotes from film critics of the times. One paragraph of the book even includes a list of the key words used in newspaper and magazine articles that described Zero de Conduite in the year 1933. Another section covers the “critical success and impact of Vigo’s films.” Also included are many black and white photographs, an index, a filmography, and a section of notes and references. If you are at all interested in Jean Vigo, his life, and his films, this book is an invaluable, thorough, well-researched, and highly recommended source.

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Filed under Books about film, France, Jean Vigo, Political/social films

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