I keep thinking of that most cherished scene from L’Atalante (1934)—one of the most beautiful movies ever made—the one that forms a bridge between the middle and last parts. The young lovers have separated; the man is miserable. He recalls something the woman told him just after they were wed, that in her village they say that if you dunk your head underwater you will see the face of your beloved. So the man climbs up on the deck of the barge of which he’s skipper and plunges headlong into the wintry-cold canal. And there, below the water’s surface, the villagers’ promise manifests in visions of the woman, all in white, dancing, smiling, a luminous pearl in the liquescent gloom. And it strikes me that this scene invokes the promise of the movies: we submerge ourselves in the dark, hoping to find something like consolation, or excitement, or enlightenment, in the apparitions hovering before us.
A romantic analogy, obviously, but such notions creep up on you when you immerse yourself in the work of Jean Vigo, who died at 29 after having only completed four films, who received scant love while alive but whose posthumous acclaim has found him heralded as the French cinema’s patron saint, a genuine martyr, having literally been killed by filmmaking, his fragile health unable to withstand the bone-chilling location work necessary to complete his masterpiece. I first saw L’Atalante on my birthday, at the Anthology Film Archives, during my first visit to New York. It put me in some kind of a trace. I seemed to be walking on sea legs afterwards, and much of what had just passed before my eyes lingered only as a spectral blur. Thankfully, Criterion has now released The Complete Jean Vigo, and I’m now able to think a little more lucidly about L’Atalante’s singular lyricism, and its echoes in everything else Vigo managed to make during his too-short career.
One of the first examples of what would later be called the essay film, Vigo and co-director Boris Kaufman’s 23-minute À propos de Nice (1930)—the city where Vigo had spent time recovering from tuberculosis, and where he met his wife—is restlessly inventive and irreverent, as much under the spell of Un chien andalou (1929) as it was the fashion for “city films.” It features sail boats, wandering crowds and people lazing in the sun (their clothing changing or suddenly, delightfully, vanishing), car races and can-can dancers (Vigo himself among them), edited in a manner that’s both elegant and mischievous, enthralled by Nice and critical of Nice. It also features gorgeous arial photography, foreshadowing the distinctive gaze from above that would return in each subsequent Vigo.
‘Taris’ (1931), a commissioned, nine-minute documentary on swimming champion Jean Taris, is surprisingly charming and extraordinarily sensual, with images of Taris’ torso twisting below the water’s surface. A final sequence finds him diving in reverse before suddenly appearing in a suit and walking (via superimposition) back into the waves.
A major influence on numerous celebrated films, among them The 400 Blows (1959), Zéro de conduite (1933) is a 44-minute narrative film about the increasingly exhilarating bouts of trouble that a group of boys get into at a provincial boarding school. This ode to childhood disobedience—laying the groundwork for the adult anarchism Vigo ascribed to—makes a cine-poetry of spasms of rebellion, building to an unforgettable climax in which the students declare war on their masters, arming themselves with pillows and converting their dormitory into a battleground strewn with feathers.
Finally, L’Atalante, sadly, Vigo’s sole feature-length work, tells the story of a woman who weds the skipper of a barge. She’s never been outside her village, and though marriage promises to show her the world, she soon realizes that it will mostly be seen only in passing. For the man, this marriage seems to represent a compromise between domesticity and freedom. Vigo conveys their troubled yet passionate romance through a delicate mise-en-scène, flowing with languorous lateral movement, haunting images of water and fog, displays of bizarre objects gathered from around the world, scenes of remarkable, touching intimacy of the sort still rare in movies, and abundant earthy humour in the form of Le père Jules (the great Michel Simon, of Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning), the bumbling old sea dog who often steals the show with his rants, accordion playing, and one-man wrestling matches.