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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