Cinematic Paradise: Jean Vigo

Holden Caulfield said that he knew he loved a book when he wanted to write a letter to the author once he’d finished it. Similarly, I know I love a film when I want to sit with the auteur over a glass of wine, to talk about life and talk about film, and to plan our next shoot. I feel that way about Jean Vigo more than any other director I can think of. Vigo only made four films, and he died at the age of 29 in 1934.

Vigo worked in a partnership with cinematographer Boris Kaufman (brother of Dziga Vertov). Kaufman described filming with Vigo, even in physically harsh conditions with little time and money, as “cinematic paradise.” Apparently Vigo was demanding but kind and very funny. I love to think about their friendship. I imagine that Kaufman was precise and technically skilled, and Vigo was vague and anarchic, but somehow they inspired each other, they found a balance to shoot wild, emotionally beautiful, beautifully filmed scenes. I’d like to shoot films with them, too. Film is collaborative by nature, and one of the aspects of Vigo’s work that I love is that he worked with the same people on many of his films. His friends, his wife, long-time collaborators. And often when he needed more help or new actors he’d find people on the street.

Jean Vigo has a watery intelligence, vague, changing, emotional, and his films are beautifully watery. Literally, in most cases–A propos de Nice is set by the sea, ostensibly a travelogue about a seaside resort, but in actuality a scathing juxtapostion of wealth and poverty, bored tourists and the workers who make their pleasure possible. Tari, Roi de L’eau is a portrait of a simmer, and L’atalante takes place on a barge. And they also have a fluid, luminous quality, like light through water, stylistically and emotionally. Like water, they follow exactly the path they’re supposed to follow, along the river bank or surging to the shore, but they’re riotous and unexpected, too, and spill out over anything that attempts to restrict them or tie them down.

Vigo has been called one of the early advocates of poetic realism. And it’s true that his films are a delightful combination of near-documentary prosody with beautiful flights of fancy and dream-like forays into characters’ imaginations. But he shows imagination and poetry as an essential part of reality, not a departure from it, and so I believe it is. We spend at least half our lives dreaming, and we only understand the world as we filter it through the strange web of our own minds. Vigo’s very ordinary characters are fascinating and lovely because he gives us a glimpse into the beautiful chaos of their thoughts and desires.

All of Vigo’s films have an edge of rebellious spirit, questioning convention and taking aim at unjust authority figures. These are attitudes he would have absorbed from his parents. He spent much of his childhood on the run because his father, Eugène Bonaventure Jean-Baptiste Vigo, a militant anarchist, was in constant trouble with the law. He took the nomme de guerre Miguel Almereyda, an anagram for “there’s the shit.” Almereyda had a hard life, he had plenty of reasons to be angry at the world. His family abandoned him, and as a teenager he found himself sick, alone and starving. He was imprisoned several times as a boy…once for “borrowing” money to pay rent, and once for attempting to blow up a pissoir, although he was so worried about hurting innocent people that he bungled the whole effort. He was sent to prison none-the-less, where he was kept in solitary confinement and semi-darkness and abused by sadistic warders. He found comfort and friendship amongst the anarchists, communists, socialists and syndicalists, and he found an outlet for his passionate anger at society.

It’s so strange to read about this world, so morally complicated as to be contradictory–so appealing and flawed, so concerned with organizing and yet so chaotic. We meet violently angry pacifists, militant anti-militarists. Almereyda and his cohorts started a newspaper and words were their weapons. Their ideals changed subtly all the time as the world about them changed, and they spoke with complete certainty and passion about each changing belief. Their words were so effective that they were received with fear and distrust as if they had been actual weapons. Almereyda found himself in and out of prison, sentenced again and again for articles that questioned the system, that encouraged strikes by workers and soldiers.

Everything fell apart with WWI. Everything changed in ways that were beyond Almereyda’s control. But it seems that he and his friends still struggled to make sense of it, they continued to write about it, they tried to ensure that the changes that came with the war were good for the people, for the workers, for the poor. And many years later, his son Jean would make films that celebrated revolution and anarchy, but glowed with love for all people and reverence for all life, and these would be feared and banned, too. But they would live on as a testament to the power of word and image, to the revolutionary power of art.

Almereyda was murdered in prison in 1917, and Jean Vigo was sent to a boarding school under an assumed name. His experiences at this school inspired the film Zero For Conduct. The film explores the everyday cruelty and kindness of school children and their small moments of freedom and rebellion. Injustice rains down from above; tradition, convention and history giving a small group of bureaucratic administrators and teachers unquestioning authority over the students. From the boys’ point of view, this lack of freedom and voice is nonsensical bordering on the absurd. And as the dreamlike logic of the film unfolds, you start to see the world in this way, and you start to question the structure of our society, the irrational practice of assigning power to certain men and taking it away from other men and women simply because it has always been done this way, inequality being built into the system that controls us. The boys’ revolution is also surreal and fantastical, but it seems to rend a hole in some dense stodgy cloth and let light and freedom through. Zero for Conduct was banned at the time it was made for being dangerously anti-authoritarian. But it was discovered decades later during the French New Wave, and it inspired a new generation of filmmakers who questioned regulations and conventions, in film as in life, and whose films changed the way we understand how we see and how we live.

Vigo’s only feature is the luminously beautiful L’atalante. He had wanted to make a film about a friend of his father’s, but after the controversy surrounding the release of Zero for Conduct, his producer thought they should try something safer, and he agreed to make a film about barge dwellers written by Jean Guinée, although he substantially rewrote the script.  Many stories end with a wedding, and tell you the dramatic story of the relationship leading up to it. L’atalante starts with a wedding, and tells you the story of the life of the newly-married couple in the weeks after. It’s as mundane, dreamy, messy, glowing, erotic, and bewildering as real human love. Aesthetically, it’s unusual, but the method makes so much sense as you watch it, that it feels nearly perfect. Visually and emotionally it’s the exact right combination of light and darkness. It has a real elegance, not from sophistication or stylishness, but from the deft, loving way that the shots are framed and the plot is revealed. The characters are simple as well – they’re not at all glamorous – but they’re beautiful in the way that kind people become beautiful when you know them well. We see the day-to-day life of a couple of newlyweds, and we watch as they pull apart and come together, as they lose each other and find each other, and grow to know and love one another. They’re drowning with longing, and confusion and desire have never been so beautifully rendered, or with such humor and honesty.

Vigo’s films have such simplicity and grace, such sincerity and soul, but they’re also deeply political, even revolutionary. In watching them we see an uncanny representation of the world as it is, if only we’d take the time to notice–wild, unruly, unfair, mundane, magical, and deeply, abidingly beautiful.

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