Category Archives: Jean Vigo

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

Zero de Conduite (1933)

 “Do you want a zero in conduct?”

French director Jean Vigo made only two feature length films (and two short films) before dying at the age 29. L’Atalante is an much acclaimed film–but Zero de Conduite has fallen into obscurity. Upon its release, Zero de Conduite–a short tale of schoolboy rebellion–was banned in France. Perhaps it was judged too subversive–Vigo’s father Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (AKA Miguel Almareyda) was in his youth, a prominent anarchist. Vigo’s father later abandoned his anarchist beliefs, became mired in some shady political activities, and was murdered in jail.

zero-de-conduiteThe film begins with the return of various schoolboys to a strict boarding school. The school environment serves as a microcosm of French society–with those in charge, corrupt and dictatorial. The boys live on a diet on beans, and teachers search for sweets, which are then confiscated. The teachers threaten the boys with the dreaded “zero in conduct” if they misbehave, and of course, that principle only works if one cares about such things. It’s not long before three troublemakers–instigators Bruel, Caussat, and Colin–are identified. The film depicts a number of ridiculous rigid rules, and the boys’ reaction to them. While one teacher is tolerant–the Chaplinesque Huguet–other teachers are notoriously strict. One of the teachers even seems to have a questionable taste for one of the boys. After a particularly trivial infraction, the boys lead a revolt against authority on alumni day. In one unforgettable scene, a pillow fight rains feathers down on the rebellious boys as they somersault in a crowded dormitory.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible print. One scene takes place in a railway station at night, and it’s very difficult to make out some of the action. The sound is crackly, and white splotches appear on the print. In spite of all this, however, the film evokes the magical, irrepressible spirit of childhood, and it certainly revived the ecstasy of my rebellious schooldays. In French with English subtitles

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Filed under France, Jean Vigo, Political/social films, Silent

Jean Vigo: A Passion for Life (1998)

 “I know who you are. You’re a bunch of anarchists.”

Jean Vigo: A Passion For Life, directed by Julien Temple, is a made-for-British television film that examines the difficult life of this unappreciated French film director. The film begins with Jean Vigo (James Frain) in adulthood with a few flashes back to his troubled childhood. A great deal of the film concentrates on Vigo’s meeting with Lydou (Romane Bohringer) when they both stayed at a sanitarium for treatment of tuberculosis. There’s, of course, a sense of desperation to their romance. Vigo died in 1934 at the age of 29 and Lydou died four years later.

jean-vigoThe film covers the many trials of Vigo’s short career, and includes snippets from some of his films: A Propos de Nice, Taris, Roi de l’Eau, Zero de Conduite, and his final film, L’Atalante. Unfortunately, for Vigo, French audiences weren’t ready for his subversive films, and it should be no shock that while today Vigo’s contribution to the history of filmmaking is acknowledged, general audiences still do not exactly appreciate either A Propos de Nice or Zero de Conduite. At this point in time, Vigo films–with the exception of L’Atalante (the only film Vigo didn’t write) are almost forgotten. L’Atalante was chopped to bits at the time of its release (as Vigo was dying), but it is now available in a new version on DVD. There’s a chance that a compilation of all four of Vigo’s films will be released at some time in the future.

Jean Vigo: A Passion for Life argues that one of the reasons that Vigo was so rejected by producers, the filmmaking industry, and audiences alike was that his father’s reputation as an anarchist tainted any possibility of acceptance and/or success. I doubt the average cinema-goer of the 30s really knew much about Vigo’s background, but they certainly didn’t understand or appreciate his films, and we get one scene of booing which escalates into some rather violent audience reaction.

Vigo’s father, who went by the name Almereyda (an anagram of  ‘there is shit’), was an anarchist, and the film makes this point repeatedly. However, according to biographer P.E Salles Gomes, Vigo’s father abandoned his anarchist roots and instead embraced politics and capitalism while Vigo was still a child. In 1912, Almereyda joined the Socialist Party and became the editor-in-chief of Le Bonnet Rouge in November 1913. Through the heavily subsided newspaper, Almereyda was effectively recuperated back into capitalist society. Of course, anarchists (and others) are subject to revisionist history, but there seems to be some truth to this story (for more detail read Jean Vigo by P.E Salles Gomes) According to Salles Gomes, many of Almereyda’s former friends were bewildered by his newfound capitalist lifestyle–a mansion, servants, and cars.

After becoming involved in a muddy treason case, Almereyda was murdered in a jail cell in 1917. Salles Gomes notes that it’s difficult to untangle the truth from the “distortions of political polemics” but still, finally arrives at the conclusion that Almereyda did indeed abandon his anarchist beliefs at some point. Unfortunately, the film skirts this issue–although there’s one small reference made to the fact during a scene when Vigo confronts his mother. She admonishes Vigo not to “canonize” his father and adds, “He turned his back on everything that we stood for.”

One of the refreshing things about Jean Vigo: A Passion for Life is its unusually playful portrayal of anarchists. Frankly in this film, they are depicted as a fun loving, uninhibited bunch of people. Vigo’s fairly constant companion, a man who escaped from Devil’s Island, looks for any excuse to take off his shirt and exhibit his many colourful tattoos. One of the film’s funniest scenes takes place at Vigo’s wedding when a small child asks:

“What’s an anarchist?”
Vigo’s friend replies: “Imagine a world in which teachers could learn from children, and a shoemaker would have as much power as a king, and parents could not tell their children what to do.”

At this point, the delighted and intrigued child announces to his horrified mother:

“I want to be an anarchist, mama.”

And, well, you can imagine her reaction….

Doubtless Vigo was heavily influenced by anarchism at some point in his life, and anarchist principles seep through both A Propos de Nice and Zero de Conduite. It’s impossible to watch these films without making the connections that Vigo was vehemently opposed to privilege and institutional authority, and we see that opposition to authority carried forth in Jean Vigo: A Passion for Life when Vigo battles with millionaires, hospital administrators and a system that largely either ignored or rejected him. Ultimately the film celebrates Vigo’s short, passionate life and his contribution to film.

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Filed under British television, Jean Vigo, Political/social films

A Propos de Nice (1930)

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.”

 

 

 

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