Film director Jean Vigo (1905-1934) had a brief career encompassing only four films, all of which were shot during the beginning of the sound era, but only one of which was full-length. Yet the critical acclimation of the poetic beauty of his work, which came posthumously, has been nearly unanimous.
Vigo was born Jean Bonaventure de Vigo in Paris on April 26, 1905, the son of anarchists Emily Clâro and Miguel Almereyda (real name: Eugêne Bonaventure de Vigo). In the early 1900s Almereyda was arrested numerous times and in 1901, at age 18, was sentenced to a year in prison for the manufacture of a bomb that failed to explode. He served nearly his entire sentence in solitary confinement. In 1904 Almereyda attended an antimilitarist congress in Amsterdam out of which sprang the Association Internationale Antimilitariste (AIA). Almereyda became one of the leaders of the French AIA. As such he was arrested and sentenced to prison in December 1905. He was released on an amnesty in June 1906. That same year he cofounded a weekly newspaper, La Guerre Sociale (The Social War).
Thus the tone was set for Vigo's early life. The anarchism and plotting were broken only by his father's jail sentences. In 1908 Almereyda was given a two-year prison sentence for praising a mutiny in the pages of La Guerre Sociale. He was released in August 1909. In 1913 Almereyda left La Guerre Sociale and cofounded the weekly, Le Bonnet Rouge, which became a daily the following year. Almereyda was named editor-in-chief. When war broke out in August 1914 Almereyda slowly began to inveigh against the military in the pages of his paper. Eventually the militarists who had maintained the upper hand in French politics had enough and he was arrested on August 6, 1917. He died in his cell under mysterious circumstances a week later. There is little doubt that Almereyda was murdered, though he was extremely ill with a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. Jean Vigo was 12 years old at the time.
Poor Health and Boarding Schools
Throughout his childhood Vigo was plagued by poor health, which worsened in the year after his father's death. Furthermore Vigo's mother shunted him off to relatives and boarding schools. Since his father's name was still notorious in France, Vigo was often forced to enroll under an assumed name-Jean Salles. Beginning in 1919, though, he spent two weeks with his mother in Paris every September. In the early 1920s he was in contact with his father's friends, who related to him facts about Almereyda's life and personality. In 1922 Vigo began attending Lycâe Marceau, a boarding school in Chartres. His studies concentrated on Latin and science, but more importantly he was near his mother, with whom he spent his vacations and occasional weekends. Enough time had elapsed since his father's death that he was able to enroll under his own name. In his late teens Vigo's health improved and he not only participated in sports at Lycâe Marceau, but he excelled in the 100-meter dash and football, where he was a goalkeeper. This almost semi-idyllic period in his life was to come to a sudden end, and the result was Vigo's estrangement from his mother.
Vigo was well versed in his father's work and legend, but the facts of Almereyda's death had always been glossed over, especially his mother's role in the legal drama that occurred afterward. From reading Le Mystêre de Fresnes (Fresnes was the prison where Almereyda died), by Albert Monniot, Vigo discovered that his mother—in order to win a lawsuit that would ensure Vigo's interests—consented to the lawyer's hypothesis that Almereyda's murder had been ordered by his own accomplices in order to stave off treachery to the cause. In 1924 the 19-year-old Vigo spent his summer vacation assembling a file that (he intended) would prove his father innocent of treachery.
Met Lydou at a Sanatorium
In June 1925 Vigo left Lycâe Marceau. His original plan was to enroll in a university, thereby extending his military deferment. Already Vigo, imbued with his father's antimilitarism, had managed to have his military physical postponed from December 1924. In late 1925 Vigo took some courses at the Sorbonne. It has been conjectured that it was at this time that Vigo decided to embark on a career in cinema. In early 1926 he fell ill once again and went to southern France to recuperate—first with his relatives, the Aubês (who had taken him in after Almereyda's death), then at a sanitorium, Font-Romeu, near Andorra, by the Spanish border. Because of his illness Vigo had to forgo the possibility of working on Abel Gance's film, Napolâon, but upon recovering and returning to Paris at the end of 1926 he set about using whatever contacts he had to gain entrée into the French film industry. Within a few months Vigo had a relapse of his illness and was back at Font-Romeu. To make matters worse, his continually deteriorating relationship with his mother left Vigo weakened and depressed. On and off he remained in such a state for more than a year, despite assistance from many friends (which at times left Vigo feeling guilty).
In 1928 his life and outlook began to take a positive turn. It was at the sanitorium that year where he met 19-year-old Elsiabeth Lozinska, known as Lydou. She was the daughter of a Polish industrialist who had been studying in Switzerland. If anything Lydou's condition was worse than Vigo's, as she was bedridden for most of her first year at Font-Romeu. In November 1928 the two were well enough to return to Paris and announce their engagement. They were married on January 24, 1929.
Vigo soon had his first job in film, assisting the cameraman on a film titled Vénus. When the film ended, though, he was out of work and the couple relied on Lydou's father to help them financially. With the money his father-in-law sent Vigo purchased a secondhand Debrie film camera with which he set about filming the animals in the zoo. This first attempt ended in disaster and Vigo never worked as cameraman on any of his other films. However, he was un-dismayed and began planning a script centered on the city of Nice, where he and Lydou had traveled. Unfortunately before he could begin production of his film his health, and that of Lydou's, took another bad turn. The couple returned to Paris for medical consultations. By then Vigo had met Boris Kaufman, possibly the youngest brother of the pioneering Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov (real name Denis Kaufman) and Mikhail Kaufman. Kaufman would eventually serve as cameraman on all of Vigo's films. After Vigo's death, he immigrated to Hollywood where he worked on such films as On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men, and The Pawnbroker.
Directed A Propos de Nice
With Kaufman behind the camera, the young director saw that most of his sketchy film plan would not translate well to the screen, thus prompting him to create a serious outline for his project. The film that resulted was the short "documentary" A Propos de Nice. Vigo's anarchist politics and his sense of satire are both strong elements of the film, which contrasts the wealthy and the poor in the city of Nice. It has often been compared to two other "city films" of the period: Berlin, The Symphony of a Great City, directed by Walter Ruttmann and Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera, which was set in Moscow.
However A Propos de Nice differs from those films in an important way; it is less reliant on temporal chronology in its structure. Thus while Ruttmann and Vertov both shaped a narrative around a "day in the life" (of Berlin or Moscow), Vigo opened his film with fireworks at night. Secondly, Vigo used toys as symbols for people and juxtaposed seemingly unrelated scenes. These elements moved the film away from being solely a documentary. In fact A Propos de Nice, with a running time of approximately 20 minutes, is at once a highly subjective critique of the city and a documentary of the gap between the rich and the poor. Filmed in 1929, A Propos de Nice debuted in Paris on May 28, 1930.
Vigo's next film is the least known and shortest of his quartet, and, likewise, the least appreciated. Taris (also known as Taris, roi de l'eau and Taris, champion de natation), filmed in 1931, is a short film featuring French swimming champion Jean Taris. The film included voice-over by Taris describing swimming trechniques, but the outstanding aspect is how Vigo once again turned the genre of documentary inside out, though Taris is neither as subjective nor as anarchistic as A Propos de Nice. When discussing Taris critics and film historians generally focus on the film's underwater shots and by extension the silence that engulfs the film. Both of these elements give Taris a dreamlike quality that is enhanced by the ending in which Taris is seen walking on water.
Zero de Conduite
Critics and film historians continue to debate which of Vigo's films is his masterpiece with many acknowledging that the title belongs to his third film, the 41-minute-long Zero de conduite (Zero for Conduct). Others consider Vigo's last film, L'Atalante, his masterpiece. Zero de conduite, shot in 1933, was Vigo's first film that had a narrative structure in the usual sense, though in the filmic sense the story was far more poetic than realist. The film's plot revolves around the children of a boarding school who decide to revolt against the strict rules of behavior. The film highlights the child's world from beginning to end: it opens with two boys delighting each other on a train with tricks and games as they return to school after a vacation. These tricks reveal their own awakening sexuality and imitation of adulthood. They, along with a third boy, will become the chief plotters in the revolt after having been given a "zero for conduct." Zero de conduite was banned in France until 1946, but thereafter became an inspiration for many French New Wave filmmakers, especially Francois Truffaut who directed his own film about children, The 400 Blows.
Depsite the fact that Zero de conduite was banned Vigo managed to secure studio backing for his next project, L'Atalante (1934). It was Vigo's final film and the only one he directed that was feature length. L'Atalante is the story of two newlyweds who sail France's waterways on a barge, named L'Atalante. When the wife grows tired of barge life she abandons her husband for Paris, but the city overwhelms her. The husband sets out to find her, but in the end it is the half-crazy bargeman (portrayed by Michel Simon) who discovers her and returns with her to the barge.
The film was first shown in Paris in April 1934, and its first public performance was in September 1934 under the title Le Chaland qui passâ. Less than a month later Vigo finally succumbed to the tuberculosis from which he had suffered for years. He died in Paris on October 5, 1934. At the time of his death Vigo had left behind more than two dozen unrealized projects, including scripts by himself, Claude Aveline, and Blaise Cendrars. L'Atalante, which had been reedited and retitled during his final illness, was eventually restored and the world would come to recognize Vigo's genius.
Salles Gomes, P.E., Jean Vigo, University of California Press, 1971.
Simon, William G. The Films of Jean Vigo, UMI Research Press, 1981.
"Jean Vigo," The Internet Movie Database, http://us.imbd.com/Name?Vigo,+Jean (February 19, 2003).
"Jean Vigo," Senses of Cinema, http://www.senseofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/vigo.html (February 19, 2003).