Jean Vigo: Prankster and Poet

French director Jean Vigo didn’t give a shit about refinement. His meager filmography bubbles over with excess, messiness, and experimentation. They’re films that speak to a life in the shadow of his murdered anarchist father, a life spent getting his hands dirty with cinema before dying at age 29. Compromise and weakness are altogether absent from Vigo’s work; in their place are brutality, tenderness, and “too much.” Now, thanks to Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo, it’s possible to watch the saga of his whole career in a scant three hours.

Here’s what you’ll find: youthful energy, a prelapsarian affection for the human body, resentment of authority figures, and an explosive, bawdy, political sense of humor. Vigo was pissed off, but never sullen. His first short film, 1930’s À propos de Nice, initially looks like a travelogue surveying the titular French resort town, showcasing its hotels, beaches, and bathing beauties. But through rhythmic editing, trick photography, and ironic counterpoint, Vigo and his photographer comrade Boris Kaufman get at the grotesque reality of Nice—what he identified as “the last gasps of a society in its death throes.”

In one of the film’s typically crass jokes, the camera settles on a young woman sitting along the boulevard. Through a series of dissolves, we see her wearing furs, stylish dresses, a string of pearls, and then nothing (well, except a pair of heels). It’s a parody of fashion, of “glamour” as a concept, with frontal nudity as its punchline. As if to top himself, Vigo ends the short with a detour into slow-motion upskirt photography. Juxtaposing this vulgarity with coastal recreation, À propos de Nice lampoons the then-prevalent “city symphony.” (As such, it also anticipates Georges Franju’s disturbing, Paris-set short Blood of the Beasts a good two decades later.)

Vigo’s second film was another short documentary, a seemingly straightforward profile of Olympic swimmer Jean Taris. But Vigo’s personality pervades the piece, both in the techniques he deploys (speeding Taris up, slowing him down, running him backwards) and in the camera’s enchantment with the swimmer’s body. Taris revels in the convergence of flesh and water, in its subject’s defiance of gravity, and in the infinite potential for motion afforded by the pool. These physical manifestations of Vigo’s anti-authoritarian ethos recur on land in his third film, the 40-minute Zero for Conduct (1933).

Crude and disjointed, it’s an anarchist manifesto rendered as a boarding school adventure, soaked in the influences of Méliès and early Buñuel. In it, Vigo envisions school as a biopolitical training ground, regulating students’ behaviors in order to churn out the obedient citizens of tomorrow. Its classrooms, cafeteria, and dormitory are all constructed from rigid, uniform rows, architectural analogues to its institutional disposition. But a gang of kids throws a wrench into this nation-perpetuating machine. They work haphazardly and they fight with each other, but they nonetheless bring this whole educational apparatus grinding to a halt, complete with a mock-crucifixion. (It’s no shock that the film was banned until 1945.)

The key here is that the conspirators aren’t special, ambitious, or especially intelligent. They’re just children. For Vigo, childhood is latent with revolutionary spirit, and children are the ideal vessels for his declaration of war against school, church, government, sexual norms, and conventional cinema. Zero for Conduct is a magical, formally unpredictable movie wherein visual imagination supersedes the laws of physics. In other words, it’s the fantasy of a child. Here, swear words (“Je vous dis merde”—that is, “I say shit to you”) have regime-changing power. Drawings come to life. And a handful of rowdy kids can overthrow their teachers and dance on the roof of the school.

The molten core of the film, then, is wish fulfillment. Vigo yearns for the violation, even the abandonment of all spatial and behavioral rules. Any “moral” adult would bemoan the boys’ propensity for destruction, but he celebrates it. The revolution begins with a pillow fight, which segues (through one boy’s near-naked backflip) into a slow-motion burlesque of religious processions, at once blasphemous, unreal, and utterly transfixing. For Vigo, beauty and violence are not merely compatible. They’re expressions of the very same impulse.

This conviction is the life blood of his final project and only feature film, the riverboat romance L’Atalante (1934). Its sketchy plot—about a newlywed couple, a crusty old sailor, and a cabin boy floating down the Seine—was forced onto Vigo by his producer, but he coped by sculpting the material to fit his personality. As it stands, the film recapitulates his style: it’s lyrical and outrageous in equal measure, as Kaufman’s unfettered camera slinks into every corner of the boat; its sensitive love story is intertwined with brash physical comedy, and it climaxes with a hallucinatory underwater ballet right that echoes Taris.

The film’s subject is amour fou, the out-of-control passion that binds Jean Dasté’s bargeman Jean with Dita Parlo’s country girl Juliette. Like Othello, they love “not wisely but too well”; they scuffle when together (cramped into a musty, cat-filled boat), and when separated they descend into catatonia and despair. This is why I love L’Atalante. Whereas so many romances trumpet the purity of love, reducing it to something cutesy and benign, Vigo handles it with the intellect and daring it deserves. The love shared by Jean and Juliette is complex, protean, and ferocious. Like childhood in Zero for Conduct, it’s dangerous. Vigo’s films aren’t “realistic,” per se, but they are anti-bullshit. Instead of glossing over the psychic states that underpin these stories, he throws himself into them headfirst.

That same overwhelming commitment informs Michel Simon’s gonzo performance as Père Jules, the buffoon who steers the L’Atalante and intrigues/antagonizes the lovers. Building off of his unkempt work in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, Simon as Jules is a mix of Falstaff and Popeye. A font of tasteless jokes and aggressive physicality, he slices his hand and shows off his tattoos to provoke Juliette, who’s aroused by his tales of maritime adventure. Jules embodies the Vigo spirit: he spits on “civilization,” on sexual decency, on monogamy and cleanliness and decorum. He is driven by runaway id, and it is he who reunites Juliette with Jean in the end. Savagery leads the way to salvation.

According to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Vigo’s Secret,” the director sent instructions for the aerial shot that closes L’Atalante from his sick bed, and died a month after a butchered version of the film was released. Given the unique intensity and passion of his existing films, I can’t help but wonder about what might have been had he lived. Where would his vast imagination have led him next? Would he have received more funding? Would he ever quit? For that matter, would he still have the same hallowed reputation, treated like an eternal flame to be passed from monk (Truffaut) to monk (Lindsay Anderson, Bertolucci, Scorsese, etc.)? Perhaps other universes have other Jean Vigos, feverishly toiling over movies into the late ’30s and ’40s. Our Jean Vigo, however, is like a cloud of spores in the air of film history, riding the wind until they hook onto a susceptible mind and start to grow.

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