Tuesday, April 26

Happy 100

Jean Vigo 1905-1934

Vigo made four short films before he died at 29 of complications from his lifelong bout with consumption: A Propos de Nice, a silent and satirical social documentary about the lives of rich and poor on the Riviera, where he'd been sent for his health; a short film about French swimming champion Jean Taris (which I've never seen); and his two masterpieces, Zéro de Conduite and L'Atalante.

Zéro, (which, due to the fact that I thought his birthday was tomorrow and so planned to watch tonight, I haven't seen in a while) is about a rebellion at a French boarding school, where Vigo spent his youth (after his father, Miguel Almereyda, a notorious anarchist, died under "mysterious circumstances" in his jail cell). It's lyrical, wildly comic, surrealist, and above all, remarkably true to childhood seen through the eyes of children. The film was banned as "anti-French" shortly after its release.

L'Atalante suffered a different fate. Vigo was ill during filming; he wasn't able to direct the last day of shooting and someone else had to edit it. He died the day before it opened (to mediocre reviews). A legendary film maudit, like Renoir's Rules of the Game, it survived for years only as a mutilated print. Meanwhile, Vigo's reputation slowly grew. Some hacked-out footage was eventually restored (in the 50s, if I recall), and in 1999 it was re-cut after even more footage was discovered. Of course no one will ever know Vigo's intention.

Still, it is perhaps the most beautiful film ever made and the closest thing to poetry in the cinema. The captain of the ironically-named barge and his new bride spend their honeymoon going up the Seine to Paris (they march directly from the church to the boat) with the two-man crew, and the small-town bride's head is turned by the big city and the contrast between the charms of a small-time huckster and her hot-tempered husband. The extraordinary Michel Simon plays the cat-loving mate Jules, the coarse and seemingly somewhat dull sailor whose hidden depths are revealed in quite remarkable ways. There are few of Zéro's surrealist touches (though one, where after an early spat the bride, still in her wedding dress, walks to the stern like she's going to keep on walking, takes my breath away every time); in fact the film presages post-war neo-realism. Although in any HFPST-like semi-finals I'd have to vote Rules of the Game or Citizen Kane the greater work, it's still, probably, the film closest to my heart. Wherever that is. Bon anniversaire, Jean.

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