Saturday, October 1, 2011

Movie Update 20: The Work of Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo was the son of an anarchist; a boy who was sent to a boarding school to be raised after his father suffocated in prison. He started making films in the 1930s, but died only a few years later of tuberculosis. His work was frequently banned or ruined by distributors, but his influence on French cinema far outlasted him or the attempts by others to ruin his life's work. It's too bad he didn't manage to have a longer career. I think he could have done a lot more with the talent obvious in his filmography, which lasts a total of less than three hours.

À Propos de Nice - A brief silent documentary, showing the cultural inequality in Nice. The narrative of the film is pretty loose, but it contrasts the easy-going lifestyles of the rich in the city with the brutal conditions and work of the poor. Simple, but very effective, especially with the score, which is occasionally playful without damaging the truth of the message.

Taris, Roi de l'Eau - A short lasting less than ten minutes, demonstrating the swimming technique of French Olympian Jean Taris. Very basic concept, but it's an interesting watch thanks to some of the techniques Vigo uses, such as slow motion and a few editing tricks. Not much else to say about it.

Zéro de Conduite - An actual feature film, though it lasts only about 45 minutes. It shows the lives of several boys living at a boarding school, who get fed up with their teachers and the principal and eventually start rioting. Not much about it jumped out at me. It was a precursor for similar movies like The 400 Blows, but it's more interesting as a historical footnote and an early demonstration of some techniques that would later see a lot of use than as a movie.

L'Atalante -The only really true, full length film Vigo ever made. It is the story of a ship captain and his new wife, and the angry jealousy he develops when she becomes bored by their uneventful honeymoon (which doubles as a work trip with the boat) and starts talking with his unusual first mate. The first mate is a pretty fascinating character, a scraggly old man covered in tattoos and devoted to caring for his many cats and his cabin full of mementos from stops in harbors all around the world. The main plot is a bit less interesting. There's a decent arc to the relationship between the two spouses, but it was a bit thin to carry a whole film. It's really too bad Vigo died when he did - I didn't love any of his work, but I think if he continued working on his craft he might have been able to.

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