Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Childhood’s End: Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo

Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become.
- Jean Vigo, Towards a Social Cinema.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a movie about the collapse of the conventional romantic paradigm, there’s a particularly haunting moment midway through when Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and her fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is making a film about their courtship and marriage, meet at a waterside dock so that he can propose to her on camera. As they debate back and forth about whether they will, or whether they won’t, he puts a life buoy over her head and pins her arms. He traps her in what looks like a huge wedding ring. But she quickly dispenses with it and chucks it into the water below. As it sinks to the bottom of the sea, we can read the name L’Atalante on the buoy. Aside from making a direct reference to the final (and only) feature film in the terribly brief career of French director Jean Vigo, Bertolucci is also paying tribute to the sad passing of the romantic stirrings of our youth, of a childhood’s end; while keeping faith with a carnal appetite that made Jean Vigo a patron saint for the New Wave that Bertolucci was once part of in the early Sixties.

The Criterion Collection, in their own significant way of honoring the work of Jean Vigo, has recently released a sumptuous DVD package of his complete work.The discs as well include a number of invaluable supplementary materials, all proving that Vigo was indeed one of the most instinctually radical of film directors until his tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934. In just under three hour of film footage (three shorts and one feature), Jean Vigo becomes before our eyes this luminously idealistic figure, a Byronic pop artist, who set out to preserve the innocent rebellion of childhood. The anarchistic and zealous pining for transcendence from authoritarian rule and dogma brought forth in Vigo a vivacious need to celebrate pure freedom; expressed not only in the content of his movies, but also in his flamboyant expressiveness, an expressiveness that echoed the spontaneity of true invention. While his work shares some of the revolutionary fervor found in the early Russian cinema, it does so without the latter’s schematic design. To experience Vigo is to feel instead like a balloon caught up in a quick breeze and pulled into states of elation that make sensual desire palpable.

Jean Vigo
Vigo’s impetuous and tragic life was equaled by no one except maybe actor James Dean in the Fifties. While both became iconic figures of youthful revolt and romantic allure, Vigo is James Dean without the crippling neurosis, the brooding contortions. If Dean was, in truth, a rebel with a cause – a need to be loved and accepted – Vigo was the rebel without one. He became what French film director Jacques Rivette called “an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world.” In The Complete Jean Vigo, we watch a young artist discover the playful child in himself until the sojourn ends with L’Atalante, where he seeks ways to preserve that playful child in an adult world with adult emotions and adult circumstances.

His journey begins with the short À propos de Nice (1930), a documentary that’s both an impish poetic montage and a political and social commentary. Vigo examines the milieu of Nice while various people find escapist ways to entertain themselves. As the middle-class goes through their daily routines, the underclass struggles to survive. Vigo once described the film as “a way of life…put on trial…the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.” While it may well have sickened Vigo, the movie doesn’t wear the hair-shirt of the rhetoric that he wrote about it. À propos de Nice is actually more playfully mocking than a call to arms about Nice's social iniquities during the late Twenties. By employing quick cuts, slow motion and lap dissolves, Vigo contrasts class conflict in the film without imposing ideology onto the material. Vigo’s “revolutionary solution,” as he would demonstrate in his later films, was more innocent than violent, expressed with an anger that never gutted his idealism but enhanced it. À propos de Nice was financed by a dowry from his father-in-law and the project brought him into collaboration with cinematographer Boris Kaufman who would work with Vigo until the end. (Kaufman would also continue his aesthetic for the commonplace by later shooting Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.) 

À propos de Nice

Jean Vigo’s second film, Taris, roi de l'eau (1931), wasn't made with the freedom he enjoyed on À propos de Nice, but was a commissioned work for Gaumont Studios about the champion French swimmer Jean Taris. Although Vigo disowned most of the picture (some of which was shot by others including Jean Renoir), it still has some beautifully startling sequences. While the first part is largely a demonstration of Taris’s techniques, Vigo in the second half liberates Taris from formal instruction so that we catch him swimming freely, as if he were a fish fresh off the hook. In the end, putting Taris in a bowler hat and long coat, the cheeky Vigo has the French hero appearing to walk on water (many years before Hal Ashby would invoke the image – more literally and unimaginatively – with Chauncey Gardner in Being There).

Jean Vigo shooting Taris

The movie that brought a memorable notoriety to Vigo’s career, of course, was Zéro de conduite (1933), a short lyrical comedy/drama that depicts the repressive and rigid educational system in France at a boarding school. It ends with an insurrection by the young students. The picture not only drew extensively on Vigo’s own experiences at a boarding school, but perhaps also on more troubling family history. His father, Miguel Almereyda (whose namesake filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the talented director of Nadja and Hamlet, writes a perceptive essay on Jean Vigo in the Criterion booklet) was an anarchist who led a mutiny among French soldiers during the Great War and was later imprisoned. While there, he died under mysterious circumstances, as his son got bounced from one institution to another, always under an assumed name. Zéro de conduite can be seen as a vivid tribute to the values of his father (even perhaps paying homage to the motto of Jean’s paternal grandfather who told him, “I protect the weakest”). But rather than face prison for this jubilant expression of anarchist spirit, Vigo saw his film banned. (Zéro wasn’t publically screened until after the Liberation in February 1946.)

The pillow fight in  Zero

The pleasure the movie takes in celebrating the young charges tweaking the status quo is as innocently liberating as watching The Beatles do the same thing years later in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Which makes it hard to imagine anyone getting incensed enough to censor its release except that the movie mocks everything sacred about French society. Zéro demonstrates such an infectious love of inventiveness – from Vigo’s tribute to Chaplin (where actor Jean Dasté, who would next play the groom in L’Atalante, as their daydreaming schoolmaster entertains them with his Little Tramp impersonations) – to the dreamy pillow fight that invokes the snowball fight that opens Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoleon

Zéro de conduite clearly influenced François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which was also a memoir that served as a manifesto against school authorities (even quoting some of  Zéro's  scenes), as well as Lindsay Anderson’s incendiary If… But Anderson’s film only superficially resembles Vigo's. In If…, the teachers are not the comic buffoons, the straw dogs of Vigo’s playful scorn, but much more violently realistic. The insurrection in Zéro is also filled with the vibrancy of a united student spirit where they seek to escape the structured world they are trapped in. (When the students protest their unappetizing lunch with taunting chants, they realize the cook is the mother of one of their own, so they stop chanting and comfort him.) But Anderson’s If… churlishly turns many of the students into carbon copies of the very people they’re rebelling against. In the end, If…is like Orwell’s Animal Farm stripped of its satire.

The 400 Blows

If Zéro de conduite carried the soul of what would later inspire the French New Wave of the early Sixties, it was Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) that gave the movement its form and purpose. Considered by many to be one of the greatest cinematic works, L’Atalante began ironically with Vigo inheriting a project that he feared would put constraints on his freedom. What developed instead was an emotionally expansive work where Vigo took a conventional story by Jean Guinée and created a startlingly original tone poem to the fragility of romantic bonding. (When critic James Agee saw the film, he wrote, “It’s as if he had invented the wheel.”)

The basic story is about Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of the canal barge L’Atalante, who has come ashore to a French provincial town to marry Juliette (Dita Parlo), even though they have barely met. From the opening shots, L’Atalante uses a discontinuous editing style depicting the varied reactions in the town that Godard would later borrow for Breathless. After the couple spends their honeymoon on the water doing barge deliveries, tensions arise because instead of seeing the world, Juliette is only getting glimpses of shorelines. There is also the presence of the cat loving Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a salty tattooed sailor, a man of the world, whom Juliette is both repelled by and attracted to. After Jean goes into a jealous rage over them talking in the quarters, they finally arrive in Paris where the couple embark to a music hall for relief. When a street merchant flirts with Juliette, however, he entices her away from a life on the sea to the bright lights of Paris. Frustrated, Jean soon abandons her.

The rest of the movie is about the anguish they experience at being apart and then their eventual reconciliation. But L’Atalante is more about moods than plot. Maurice Jaubert’s exquisitively inventive score not only embroiders the ups and downs of the couple’s married life (especially in an achingly erotic scene where the estranged couple dream of each other from their different beds), it becomes a key part of the story that brings them back together. (For those with a savvy ear for film music, you might recall that Truffaut lifted the same Jaubert music from the erotic dream sequence for his The Story of Adele H, another film about obsessive desire.) 

In L’Atalante, Vigo freely uses and invents techniques best suited to his particular vision. There are practically no words to describe the sheer incongruous beauty of Juliette, in her bright white wedding dress, walking across the long barge under the night sky. The view of the anarchic cats scattering across the barge seem now like a foretelling of that great cat lover Chris Marker (Sans Soleil), the French film essayist who would inherit the libertarian leftist spirit of Vigo rather than his particular style.

By calling L’Atalante an ‘adult’ film, it does not diminish the young man’s spirit that informed it. In essence, the picture is a full examination of how one desperately tries to keep the ideals of love, with its zeal for adventure and mystery alive in a world that can take it all away. For Vigo, tragically, it was all taken away during his lifetime. First, the distributors cut the running time down to an hour to make it appeal to a popular audience. (They also changed the title to the ridiculous The Passing Barge, the title of a pop song that they also added to the picture.) Vigo would die shortly after this calamitous release. Over the years, though, the picture recovered. It was first restored in 1990 to 89 minutes thanks to a pristine copy being found in the archives of the Italian State broadcasting company. The new Criterion version is a new restoration with the crispest print I've seen yet.

Jean Daste and Dita Parlo in L'Atalante

Writing about Vigo in his book The Films in My Life, Truffaut spoke as an abiding spirit. “Like all artists, filmmakers search for realism in the sense that they search for their own reality, and they are generally tormented by the chasm between their aspirations and what they have actually produced, between life as they feel it and what they have managed to reproduce of it.” For Jean Vigo, time didn’t allow time for any chasm to exist, but he did turn torment into pleasure, real into the surreal, and in one short breath of life, brought us a vision of unbridled cinematic freedom.

***The Complete Jean Vigo contains a two-disc set with new high-definition digital restorations of his four films with wonderfully detailed commentary by Michael Temple, the author of Jean Vigo. The supplementary disc features a short excerpt on Vigo from a 1964 French television series on French directors. There's also a fascinating conversation with both François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on L'Atalante from a 1968 television program. Michel Gondry provides a touching animated short tribute to the director. But the most invaluable extra is a 2001 documentary by film restorer and historian Bernard Eisenschitz which examines the various restorations of L'Atalante which includes fascinating rushes from the shoot including Jean Vigo directing the actors. There's also a 2001 video interview with Georgian-French director Otar Iosseliani on Vigo.    

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier begins a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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