Friday, May 14, 2010

Jean Vigo and L’Atalante

‘A pretty girl’s smile
May hold us a while’

Jean Vigo made only four films in his short lifetime (1905-1934 – he died aged twenty-nine*, just after completing L’Atalante); together his films last just three hours. But these films show such an enthusiasm, love and poetry towards cinema, and life, that they remain fresh, experimental, personal and beautiful, over seventy years after they were made.

L’Atalante (1934) is Vigo’s only full-length feature film. His first two films, A Propos de Nice (1929) and Taris (1931), were both short documentaries, but seem (especially Taris), stylistically, like mock rehearsals for L’Atalante. In Vigo’s original notes for A Propos de Nice he writes that he was going to start it with shots of the sea, then cut to a river, to sewers and then to ice and snow. He eventually abandoned these ideas, but it shows in his thinking already one of the major motifs in L'Atalante: water.

Vigo shot A Propos de Nice with help from Boris Kaufman, younger brother of the Soviet experimental filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Boris went on to shoot Vigo’s two subsequent films, and was a great pioneer of experimental film - he used fast and slow motion, superimposition. It is assumed that Kaufman told Vigo stories of his elder brother’s filmmaking exploits. These stories would have inflamed the young Vigo to experiment and explore film. This shows in A propos de Nice. Some of the film shows the influence of Soviet Kino-Eye techniques – ‘montage attractions’, a series of association shots.

But although Vigo was certainly influenced by other films and film-makers (PE Salles Gomes suggests Foolish Wives, Rene Clair, the German avant-garde and of course Soviet film-making), even in his first film he is finding his own personal style, improvising and experimenting. Eric Rhode: “No other film-maker has used the medium so testingly as a mode of self development.”

Although A Propos de Nice uses trick effects, it is not in a slick, superficial way, unlike many avant-garde filmmakers of the time. The effects are just used to push, as far as possible, what Vigo is trying to express. The film is perhaps naive and ‘primitive’, and Vigo has been called an ‘amateur genius’. But it is also still, surprisingly, modern and fresh. The critic David Thomson praises its camerawork: “strolling, intimate and liberating.”

Vigo went to film in a graveyard. He was fascinated by death all his life – his father, an anarchist, died in prison in ‘mysterious circumstances’. He experimented with camera movement, for example, by trying to make a statue of an angel on a gravestone look as if it were flying. Vigo and Kaufman became excited when they saw a nude statue with a nest and some dirty water between its legs – they went to film it straight away. What comes across is an almost childlike enthusiasm and love for trying things out.

Vigo’s next film was commissioned to him: a short documentary on the French swimming champion, Jean Taris. It lasts only ten minutes and Vigo showed little interest in the project, but it is an important film in his development. There is still the love of experimentation: slow and fast motion, superimposition. reverse shots and jump cuts. Most important of all though is the theme of water. The underwater shots of Taris swimming Vigo would later repeat in L’Atalante.

Vigo’s next film, Zero de Conduite (1933), was his first work of fiction. It is his most personal film so far – partly based on his school days (and the primarily influence on Anderson's If...), and partly based on stories about his father in prison: school as prison. Vigo said about it: “This film is so much my own life as a kid that I’m anxious to go onto something else.” It caused controversy when it came out, in 1932, and was banned in France until the fifties. (A Propos de Nice also caused some controversy because Vigo’s hatred of the middle-aged idle rich on the promenade at Nice made them look grotesque). Zero de Conduite is scathing in its depiction of the teachers, depicting them as midgets, grotesques and perverts. It shows bitter resentment to the institution of school and how unfairly it treats children.

The film is far from perfect: the plot and dialogue are unclear; the acting bad; there’s a lack of rhythm and the script was not prepared well. But it doesn’t matter. The film is pure Vigo: fresh, original, surreal and experimental. Again there is slow motion: in particular, a beautifully poetic scene of children walking through a snowstorm of feathers.

PE Salles Gomes cites the first scene of Zero de Conduite as being most representative of Vigo’s style. It is set in a train compartment and has two children playing around in it. Shot one: it starts in every day reality (the train carriage); two: we move to the bizarre (the children’s objects and toys); three: fantasy (the hazy dream atmosphere of smoke in the carriage).

Later in his book on Vigo, Gomes states that he can find no trace of surrealism in Vigo’s work. But if surrealism is the intrusion of fantasy upon reality, like in a Magritte painting, then Vigo’s work is definitely surreal, albeit subtly. Surrealism has to be based in reality in order for the fantasy to be accepted and believed. David Thomson sums up Vigo’s style well when he talks of his “poetic surrealism”.

L’Atalante was given to Vigo already as a script. At first Vigo felt uninspired by it, but had no choice but to make it. Geoff Andrew writes that Vigo has the “ability to transform mundane reality into pure poetry.” And this is precisely what Vigo does with the mundane script.

Storywise, it is slight. A young married couple start their lives on a barge. They argue (the woman is attracted by the bright lights of Paris; the man is not); split up, and eventually are reunited.

The settings depict harsh reality and working class life: docklands, desolate landscapes, small provincial towns. The realities of life on the barge are emphasised: manning the boat, washing clothes, sewing. The boat is small and cramped. People argue and shout at one another.

But Vigo’s eye is in every shot and shows us the reality to be lyrical, beautiful, dreamy, poetic, surreal and reveals what David Thomson calls “the sensuousness of the image”. This doesn’t detach from the harsh realities of life, but emphasises the richness of it. Indeed, L’Atalante seems more documentary-like, more realistic than Vigo’s other films.

Although there are similarities between Vigo’s first two films and L’Atalante, they are similar in only a superficial way. Although water is used in A Propos de Nice and Taris, it is not to any depth. In L’Atalante it represents a lot more. There is the physical fact that a lot of the action takes place on the boat; this is their home. They are moving away from their home village, and starting a new life. There is also the fact that they are somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, and the tensions that arise from that (Juliette’s longing for Paris, for example).

But the river, water, represents much more. For Vigo, it is symbolic of life and love. It is always moving, flowing and changing. When Jean is searching for Juliette he dives underwater to try and see her – Juliette had said earlier she sees Jean underwater, and he will see her too when he really needs to (but Jean had made fun of her). There is the incredibly intense, and strange, shot of Jean hugging, licking and kissing a large block of ice, desperately trying to feel his wife. And another shot of Jean looking for Juliette, running wildly across a desolate beach. The last shot, a helicopter shot, tracking along the river: life goes on. From beginning to end, water permeates the whole film.

The trick effects, used extensively in A Propos de Nice and Taris, are not used as much in Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante. Slow motion is used, sparingly, in the latter two films. This shows Vigo’s maturity as a filmmaker. The trick effects in Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante come as a surprise: they are almost shocking in their beauty and poetry. The underwater scene with Juliette superimposed on top of Jean, is especially moving. In Vigo’s first two films the effects are amusing, but not quite poetical or enriched with meaning.

There is much humour in all Vigo’s films, and especially in L’Atalante. But in his latter two films the humour comes from the characters rather than, say, dancing women’s legs sped up (A Propos de Nice). The content now dictates the form.

One of the first shots of L'Atalante is of a barge going across the river. It is a long shot. All of a sudden from all the greyness, clouds of white appear at the bottom of the screen. It is an astonishing, arresting shot.

But, like with the film as a whole, it’s hard to actually break it up and say how or why it works. It’s not particularly in the quality of the photography (although it’s partly the light, compositions and angles), or the story, or the acting (though Juliette is delightful and Pere Jules is hilarious). It is a combination of things. David Thomson mentions “the sensuousness of the images”. Some of them, yes. But overall, I would call the images haunting. They stick in my mind, but I’m not sure why (surely the highest praise: a mysterious, unknown beauty, not simply consisting of technique).

There is an upward angle of a church. Out come Pere Jules and the cabin boy to prepare the barge for leaving. The newly weds and their guests follow shortly out of the church. It is all rather formal – they walk in a straight line, in pairs, like school children. They are all dressed in black; what should be a joyous occasion appears more like a funeral. The couple walk arm in arm, looking straight ahead, with blank expressions on their faces. Good use is made of the moving camera tracking along with the couple. The guests can be seen in the background, but they soon disappear as the camera concentrates on the newly weds. This emphasises the couple are leaving to start their new life, they are breaking away to freedom.

Next there is a long shot of the couple walking past large haystacks; it is a beautiful shot, recalling Monet’s paintings of the same subject. The sun is almost setting; there are strong contrasts of light and dark. The couple then walk through a field of tall grass, taller than the couple in fact. They look quite out of place, for the setting looks more like a jungle. Then they walk through a field and are almost silhouetted.

For all these shots the newly weds walk from right to left on the screen, past the camera. This is unnatural to the eye for we read from left to right (in the west). This shows the characters uncertainty of their future.

The shots have a silvery quality to them, and a natural beauty. PE Salles Gomes: “...some of the most beautiful outdoor shots in the history of cinema.” A shot occurs several minutes later which has always stuck in my mind: the cabin boy with the wild flowers. He has so many of them they just about cover him entirely. The background is a grey, menacing sky. It is an arresting, bizarre and surreal image, yet perfectly realistic. Not surreal for surreal sake, like, say, Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (which in fact Vigo admired).

The success of Vigo’s films lies in something quite simple: movement. The actions of Pere Jules and the cabin boy are childlike and almost animalistic. This is in stark contrast to the stiffness and seriousness of the couple and the guests.

The shot of Juliette walking hesitatingly along the barge, the white of her dress against the grey of the water, for what it’s worth, made me cry when I first saw it. The movement of the shot relies on the friction between the barge going one way and Juliette walking the other way. Vigo has expressed his love of the human body and how it moves.

Jean Vigo put so much of himself in his films. During the filming of L’Atalante he was ill, and died soon after its completion (from tuberculosis). Yet his films are filled with the richness of life and there is a “sure note of joy” (David Thomson) in them.

Friends who I’ve persuaded to watch L’Atalante say, at best, that it is a “nice” film. I can see the “niceness” of it: in the beautiful images, the happy ending, and so on. But I also see a haunting, sad film. Maybe because I see so much of Vigo’s tragic life in it.


*Other 'poets' of the cinema to die young include Sadao Yamanaka, who died aged 29, like Vigo; Michael Reeves (director of Witchfinder General; died aged 25 of an accidental overdose) and Humphrey Jennings (aged 43 – okay, I know it's not young but it's not exactly old is it?; directed fine wartime documentaries including Fires were Started; died slipping off a cliff in Greece).

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