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Jean Vigo

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on: November 15, 2005, 01:43:30 AM

Cut Short
by Elbert Ventura 

It takes less than three hours to watch the entirety of Jean Vigo's oeuvre. The French filmmaker left behind only two shorts and two features before his premature death in 1934 at the age of 29. His epitaph is the kind that inspires romantic canonization: Born to a militant anarchist, Vigo was orphaned as a child after his father's death in jail; fought and lost a long battle with tuberculosis; and went unappreciated during his lifetime. It wouldn't be until the liberation that a new generation of cineastes would discover his singular contribution to the movies. Since then, Vigo has enjoyed the periodic renaissance, as if the movie gods were eager to compensate for the early neglect and untimely exit.

Beneath the Keatsian allure of his biography are the movies. Standing on the cusp of silent and sound cinema, his movies feel appropriately disconnected from the art's current. So fully do they embody their maker's anarchic spirit that they resist classification, mingling prose and poetry, realism and surrealism, banality and transcendence. His centenary this year has occasioned a new wave of revivals. But no matter how often we revisit them, the movies never seem to assume a more tangible form. Like the mist that envelops many of his images, they remain ethereal and ungraspable.

One hundred and sixty minutes, give or take, were all it took for Vigo to articulate a conception of the medium that is as inspirational as it is inimitable. Its elusiveness may explain why Vigo's cinema seems the object of cultish devotion rather than mainstream assimilation. Writing in the Nation in 1947, James Agee conceded that both Zero for Conduct and L'Atalante, which had just then received a stateside release, were "far too specialized." But Agee couldn't restrain himself. In a two-part article, he rhapsodized about Vigo's expansion of the movies' formal vocabulary. "It is as if he had invented the wheel," he wrote.
The shorts, Apropos de Nice and Taris, Roi de L'eau, came first. Made in 1930 and 1931 respectively, they already bore the hallmarks of Vigo's rough magic. A darkly satiric city symphony, Apropos de Nice critiques the city's indolent bourgeoisie. The tone is hardly oppressive, however. Shot by Vigo collaborator Boris Kaufman (who would later win an Oscar for cinematography for On the Waterfront), Apropos de Nice is distinguished by what have come to be the filmmaker's hallmarks: formal experimentation, an affinity for the carnivalesque, a sense of play, a profound sensitivity for people and their environment. Taris, Roi de L'eau pushed the avant-garde dabbling further. An eleven-minute movie of swimming champ Jean Taris, it's a lively doodle that anticipates L'Atalante's loveliest image: an underwater search for a lost lover in the Seine.

The urtext of anti-authoritarian cinema, Zero for Conduct by itself would have earned Vigo a footnote in film history. Though only forty-five minutes long, Vigo's first feature tosses off more ideas than most movies three times as long. Vigo drew on his years at a boarding school for this chronicle of a children's revolt against their mean headmasters. Oneiric and prankish, Zero for Conduct is an unabashed ode to children and a romantic call to arms. Its high point is a pillow fight in a dormitory that escalates into a slow-motion riot amid a storm of feathers--ecstatic abandon apotheosized. With its depiction of authority figures as dummies (literally), the movie was banned until 1945 in France.

If Zero for Conduct is one of the great personal statements of cinema, L'Atalante may well be its greatest work-for-hire. Vigo reportedly disliked the script about a sailor and his bride embarking on a new life together on a river barge. In his hands, the wisp of a story becomes a lulling seduction. Opening with a wedding procession that's positively funereal, the movie spends the bulk of its time on the barge L'Atalante, as it makes its way down the Seine with the newlyweds, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliet (Dita Parlo). Onboard are Jean's crew, loveable oaf Pere Jules (the incomparable Michel Simon) and the dimwitted cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre).

A fragile meditation on the varieties of passion--honeymoon bliss, marital intimacy, animal attraction, l'amour fou--L'Atalante encompasses not just the range of human desire but the possibilities of cinema itself. Its greatness issues from Vigo's fusion of artless spontaneity and sensuous lyricism to make something wholly new. Critics called it poetic realism, a style that flowered in the years following his death and that reached its pinnacle in Jean Renoir's movies in the late 1930s. Vigo's art at once caught life on the fly and imbued it with febrile intensity. The ghostly shots of a bride on a ship's bow, the surreal interlude involving Jules's arsenal of bric-a-brac, the erotic cross-cutting between lovers pining for each other in separate beds: These images don't just ravish the senses, but bespeak their creator's belief in the presence of the mystical--the unknowable--in the mundane.

"Filming prosaic words and acts, he effortlessly achieved poetry," wrote Francois Truffaut of Vigo. It's the "effortlessly" that's key. To watch Vigo's movies is to be in the presence of a sensibility that couldn't make a boring object if it wanted to. It's an effortlessness that poses a tender reproach to the egotistical tendency of auteurist cinema, in which the loud pronouncement of a personal style and despotic control over the frame are often mistaken for artistry. Vigo, by contrast, was both idiosyncratic and self-effacing, a true artist who displayed humility before life's rich pageant. He made poetry, but he never called attention to the poet.

Once upon a time, this kind of generosity earned disciples. The romantics and revolutionaries of the New Wave worshipped at his altar and absorbed his lessons. The 400 Blows was Truffaut's version of Zero for Conduct; in Britain, Lindsay Anderson gave it his shot with If.... Bertolucci explicitly quotes L'Atalante in Before the Revolution and Last Tango in Paris. The torch bearers appear to dwindle as the years pass. Leos Carax, one of cinema's extravagant romantics, blatantly invokes Vigo not just in his movies, but in cultivating a reputation as a poet maudit. Emir Kusturica's ramshackle mise-en-scène can be traced back to the slovenly opulence of Jules's room. (In his masterpiece, Underground, he even pays direct homage to L'Atalante's underwater reverie.) They are the few. In 1992, Sight and Sound's decadal poll of greatest films saw the world's directors putting L'Atalante at number five. In the most recent poll in 2002, the movie wasn't even in the top 50.

But maybe we are getting too caught up in the arbitrariness of canon-building. For when it comes down to it, Vigo's movies seem immune to our earthly thrashings. That L'Atalante itself is still with us may be all that we can reasonably ask for. Distributors hated the movie, mutilated Vigo's cut, and slapped a new title on it. Vigo, who was inching toward death during its making, died shortly after its disastrous run. Perhaps there is something to what Truffaut intuited: that Vigo's films pulse with so much life because he gave so much of his own to them.

Elbert Ventura is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

L'Atalante thread