Film history rightly remembers Jean Vigo for his short and remarkable career as a filmmaker from 1929 to 1934. But the story of his life before cinema, especially his family circumstances and childhood experiences, is no less extraordinary, and it throws an interesting light on the creative years that followed. This book conveys a sense of the awe and enthusiasm that those four films, À propos de Nice, Taris ou la natation, Zéro de conduite and L'Atalante, have inspired among filmmakers, critics, historians, archivists and fans, ever since the tragic death of their creator in 1934. It commences with the key biographical features of Vigo's early life, in particular the traumatic events of his childhood and the violent death of his father. In the following chapters, we shall focus on the quartet of films one by one. The book then discusses how the two short documentaries, À propos de Nice and Taris ou la natation, were an experimental apprenticeship in the art of filmmaking. It also analyses his semiautobiographical fiction Zéro de conduite as a fable of libertarian revolt. The book proceeds to examine how Vigo attempted the transition to mainstream cinema with L'Atalante, his only full-length feature film, discussing some of the most significant reactions that it provoked. Finally, the book situates in post-war French film culture the exceptional critical fortune of quartets, which has transformed the slender corpus of a once almost unknown film-maker into one of French cinema's greatest names.
This chapter begins with a superlative assessment of Henri Langlois where he claims Jeav Vigo as the cinema incarnate, the historic founder of the Cinémathèque française and one of the most influential personalities in twentieth-century film culture. It discusses how the two short documentaries, À propos de Nice and Taris ou la natation, were an experimental apprenticeship in the art of filmmaking. The chapter also begins with some basic biographical information about Vigo's extraordinary childhood, as well as some historical background to the key formative events of his early years. Film history rightly remembers Vigo for his short and remarkable career as a filmmaker, from 1929 to 1934, and we celebrate the artistic legacy of his intriguingly unfinished work. Two crucial factors, however, seem to have carried him through the difficult and potentially fatal period. They are cinema and love.
Jean Vigo's independent entrance into cinema, À propos de Nice, is considered nothing less than a documentary classic, a particularly fine example of the 'city-portrait' genre that flourished across the film-world in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It stands alongside such celebrated works as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's Manhatta, Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, a City Symphony and Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera, those landmarks of a historical meeting between the documentary movement and the avant-garde, between experimental film and the cinema of experience. In the case of Jean Vigo, the experience of À propos de Nice fulfils the triple function of the documentary debut, since the film is at once a formal experiment, a social commitment and an apprenticeship in filmmaking. In terms of Vigo's career, the most meaningful feature of À propos de Nice was the fact that he had actually made a film.
Having completed Taris ou la natation in January 1931, the 25-year-old Jean Vigo now had two short films to his credit. One was an amateur experimental documentary with a small but significant critical reputation, the other a journalistic commission, which had introduced him to the world of professional filmmaking, and in particular to one of the major French production companies of the early 1930s, Gaumont, Franco-Film and Aubert (GFFA). When Zéro de conduite was shown in public for the first time, at the trade screening in April, the audience's reactions were violently split, mainly along lines of personal loyalty on the one hand, and ideological prejudice on the other. Thus the children appearing in the film, and their parents, were pretty delighted to see themselves portrayed on the screen. Likewise Vigo's extended family of artistic friends and political sympathisers were full of enthusiasm and vociferous approval.
This chapter begins by discussing the Jean Vigo's story of L'Atalante's preparation and realisation. It details the dramatic events that were to unfold during the shooting of L'Atalante, nor the terrible fate awaiting Vigo, as his health took a turn for the worse in February 1934. The chapter briefly explains the complex history of the film's successive versions and restorations, from Le Chaland qui passe in 1934 to the Gaumont restoration of 2001. It presents an analytical discussion of L'Atalante, focusing in particular on three areas: the film's narrative structure, the representation of its key themes and the creation of its principal characters. Vigo died in October 1934, his passing largely ignored and soon forgotten by the majority of the film world. As for his unknown masterpiece, L'Atalante now embarked on an odyssey of loss and restoration, whose peregrinations were to last for the next fifty-five years.
This chapter considers how the critical reputation and historical status of Jean Vigo and his work have evolved in French cinema culture since the filmmaker's premature disappearance in 1934. It shows that, within a decade or so of his death, this virtually unknown artist, whose modest corpus had at the time of its production scarcely made a mark in the spirit of the film-going public, was already on his way to becoming a vital legend of French cinephilia. This artist was also an inspirational hero for the younger generation of filmmakers and critics emerging in the post-war years. The chapter argues that 'the myth of Vigo' is neither a factual error nor a critical misinterpretation, which would therefore need to be corrected, but is rather a historical form that demands to be understood in the broader context of French cinema culture since the 1930s.