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The Poetry of Jean Vigo

Jean and Juliette have just married. He is the skipper of the barge, L’ Atalante, which is to be the couple’s home. Onboard, Juliette soon gets used to the simple life but longs to visit the city. They arrive in Paris. After a row, Juliette goes ashore to see the sights and Jean, in a fit of rage, sails without her. But in her absence, Jean is distraught, and as the weeks go by, Pere Jules, the mate, has to cover up for his skipper’s neglect of the barge. One day, Pere Jules manages to repair an old phonograph. He carries it out on the deck to Jean. It plays a haunting waltz. Jean stares at it, transfixed. A faint smile steals across his face. There seems no question that he will find

Juliette again. . .

This sequence from L’Atalante (1934) is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in cinema. I think it’s because it is so immediate. The image of the phonograph talks directly to our emotions; it bypasses our intellect completely. It’s as if Vigo himself were sitting at our side, whispering in our ear . . .

Poetry is Vigo’s trademark and the quality most often connected with his work. His films are uneven and because of this, it is tempting to think that Vigo was prone to flashes of inspiration while the rest of the time he didn’t really know what he was doing in the professional sense. I don’t think that this is the case. I believe Vigo took great concern with the problem of expression. He was always searching for the most concise images with which to crystallize his ideas.

A difficulty in talking about Vigo is that you have to view his films sympathetically in terms of the practical difficulties associated with their production: for many years, neither Zéro de Conduite (1933) nor L’Atalante existed in their original versions. Sometimes, especially in Zéro de Conduite, Vigo’s lack of technical expertise means that you have to read between the lines. Then there’s the problem that Vigo died before realizing his potential. As P.E. Salles Gomes reveals in his wonderful biography of the director, Vigo made films ‘inside out’, creating superb moments filled with magic that just didn’t cut together into elegant films. By departing considerably from his scripts, in order to take his inspiration from the life around him during shooting, Vigo set himself difficult tasks in the editing room where he would have to find his film again and rebuild it. Vigo died, I think, before fully developing this capacity.

Perhaps a little bit contradictorily, Vigo brought to each of his films an idealized vision of what it should look like, and it caused him moments of terrible disheartenment when the finished product failed to resemble his initial vision. Gradually, he began to rid himself of such preconceptions as, during shooting, he drew more of his inspiration from the life around him. This method – to ‘capture life’ – means that every film develops in its own way; it is impossible to visualize the finished film from the script. We can see elements of this dilemma in Vigo’s first film, À Propos de Nice (1930).

Vigo had approached the subject, a documentary of the French tourist resort, aiming for social commitment; he wrote a highly abstracted script and, influenced by the avant-garde movement, planned elaborate camera effects to convey his ideas. He immediately found problems in making reality conform to what he had in mind and had to adjust his ideas to what was physically possible. However, he was still unsure of how to express himself. These deliberations were fortuitously resolved when Vigo discovered that a carnival was being planned to attract tourists to the city. Recognizing the inherent mercenary-ness, Vigo subsequently devoted most of his film to document the event.

Watching À Propos de Nice now, it is clear that Vigo succeeds precisely during the moments in which he displays his extraordinary gift for poetic observation, whereas when he strives for effect, such as showing models of tourists being raked in with a croupier’s rake, he fails. However, Vigo’s early penchant for camera tricks is not for purely gratuitous reasons, it’s part of an early attempt to express himself through cinema.

In his second film, a documentary of the Olympic swimmer, Jean Taris, Vigo is still obviously interested in using the camera to create sensations. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in Taris or swimming; he seems concerned with showing the beauty of movement in the water. Taris (1931) is laden with camera effects, and because of this, Vigo disliked the film in retrospect. Even so, he would later use the strange image created by a man’s head underwater again – to brilliant effect in L’Atalante. For this reason, Taris is important in assessing Vigo’s development as a film director because it represents Vigo at his most experimental.

In his 1930 lecture, Toward a Social Cinema, Vigo revealed that ‘I feel torn between my duty as a man and my nature as an artist’. In other words, after À Propos de Nice, Vigo still felt the need to make social comments in his art. Given this, it’s all the more extraordinary that in Zéro de Conduite, through which Vigo wanted to explore the effects of prison, he chose the story of revolt in a boarding school as his allegory. I say this because it’s a sign of Vigo’s superior judgment that he chose a metaphor that would avoid the explicit comparison inherent in drawing parallels between factories and prisons, say.

Perhaps the subject was too close to Vigo’s heart to treat in such an impersonal way: he had many memories of the school; his father, an infamous subversive who called himself Miguel Almereyda, was killed in prison during Vigo’s childhood. The two events had become inexplicably linked in Vigo’s mind. What’s more, the subject allowed Vigo to express anarchistic sentiments without violating that compassion that is always evident in his work. Nobody is shot in this revolution: Vigo’s account of oppression and rebellion is highly stylized.

Conversely, he begins from reality in presenting the schoolchildren. They are all based on Vigo’s childhood friends and perhaps because of this, Vigo manages to gain our sympathies for all of them. In other words, the children seem real and Vigo asks us to treat them with respect. With this established, Vigo dramatizes oppression by having the schoolmasters question this respect. The Principal suspects an unhealthy relationship between two of the boys and chastises them (in a wonderfully strange and allusive piece of dialogue: “my child, I am almost like your father…at your age, there are things, isn’t that so?…things…Bruel is older than you. Your temperament, your sensitivity, his…isn’t that so? Psychopathic…Neuropathic…WHO KNOWS!”)

Vigo creates his own reality in Zéro de Conduite; a highly stylized reality from which he cannot stray if the audience is to believe. In the script, Vigo wrote of a scene in which one of the boys is playing in his friend’s dining room, ‘the father watches benevolently’. When it came to shooting, Vigo must have realized his mistake because he hides the father’s face behind a newspaper. A sympathetic adult would have been out of place in the film. 

The filming of Zéro de Conduite suffered from restrictions to the budget and amateur performances. These, together with Vigo’s own technical inexperience all sought to undermine the project. What’s more, Vigo had to take out 1000 ft. in order to keep to the length required by the producer. Vigo chose to take out plot elements rather than the scenes that he felt were imbued with his vision. As a result, the already elliptical story became almost incoherent in places.

I think he made the right choice, given the circumstances. The qualities of Zéro de Conduite derive from the authenticity of Vigo’s vision. By recalling his most personal memories of childhood and expressing them to us in images of astonishing immediacy, Vigo stirs our own memories . . .

Zéro De Conduite is a triumph of vision over circumstance. Vigo’s main concern as a director was to ensure that his intentions suffered as little as possible during the production process. In L’Atalante, Vigo was working from someone else’s script and this time he was able to take inspiration from the production process: the improvements he made from script to finished film are nothing short of miraculous.

The original was a poorly worked out romance with characters who spoke their emotions and were delineated with extreme heavy-handedness. The author clearly did not know how to present characters for the screen. Vigo, on the other hand, proceeded to invest his characters with human complexities and show these through action: 

On the first night of their marriage, when Juliette is caressed by her husband, Jean, she resists and runs off. But when Jean is scratched by a cat as he tries to pursue her, Juliet immediately softens and lovingly touches his bleeding face. 

To liven up her housekeeping chores, Juliette teaches Jean to plunge his head into the water and keep his eyes open – that way he can see the image of the one he loves. 

When Pere Jules cuts his hand with a knife to demonstrate its sharpness, Juliette’s reaction is a mute fascination and as written in the script, ‘a hint of vampire’s tongue’.

Hidden underneath strong emotions, Vigo is actually building characters who express themselves in action and reaction. In the case of Juliette, Vigo creates a character fully shaped and rich with ambiguity. She is at once a shy country girl, and a woman equally attracted to and disturbed by the ferocious eroticism that she feels, an efficient housekeeper and an adolescent discovering the world. Mystery cements these elements in place. Vigo presents a coherent character, not a mass of contradictions. For me, L’Atalante is about people who affect each other with their actions. They interact, learn, and develop. Vigo has succeeded in having the characters create the plot while remaining completely within the original storyline.

During shooting, Vigo had to bear in mind the specific function of each of these scenes in relation to the whole. Vigo viewed his scripts as a starting point from which to depart during the filmmaking process, as he found more authentic and truthful images in the circumstances around him that could replace the literary images in the script. In Zéro de Conduit, before Vigo had perfected this method, he was often sidetracked in the process and lost the essence of the scene within the whole. Vigo never makes this mistake in L’Atalante. This is due, in part to the superior product but more so, I think, because Vigo had learned direction skills that enabled him to control his vision from day to day and not get lost in the detail of shooting. For the first time, Vigo had professional actors at his disposal and he had to direct them with equal professionalism. To overcome problems with a poor sound system in Zéro de Conduite, Vigo had experimented with repetition in the dialogue. This produced a weird, chant-like effect, which Vigo obviously liked. (I have already quoted an example of dialogue from Zéro De Conduite, its bizarre poetry and allusive qualities are, I think, exemplary of Vigo’s writing style and in keeping with the basic rules of film dialogue.)

In L’Atalante, Vigo perfected this style, utilizing it in more ways than one. Michel Simon (Pere Jules) had very poor diction; to overcome this problem, Vigo had Simon repeat words and other people’s questions before replying (a not-uncommon trait and perfectly in keeping with Pere Jules’ character). Simon had the reputation of being difficult – he would often try to undermine the director’s authority. By giving him a degree of freedom with his lines, Vigo kept him both happy and completely under control.

Vigo had developed a method of directing actors: he would play out their roles himself as they watched. Rather than have them imitate him gesture by gesture, Vigo wanted to give them an impression of what he was after and by using this method, he was able to communicate his intentions with greater immediacy than words.

Vigo’s direction of the camera in L’Atalante is a great improvement on the crudely functional style of Zéro de Conduite. In L’Atalante, Vigo’s camera is unobtrusive but controlled; it is still wonderfully simple but more refined. He uses all the tools: tracks, pans, tilts, etc. and is technically more proficient than before. But the genius of Vigo’s camera style is that his ‘eye’ is too immediate to obey any ‘rules’ of cinematography.

In L’Atalante, Vigo captured two images that form, I think, the pinnacle of his search for the perfect expression of an idea: firstly, use of dissolves in a scene that unites the two lovers although they are separated geographically. Jean is in bed on board the Atalante. Juliette is in her hotel room. They cannot sleep. They toss and turn, restless with desire. The cutting quickens as their movements begin to match. The correlation between their movements becomes so striking that the impression of love enduring becomes inescapable

Secondly, in a brilliant visual development of an idea introduced earlier in the film, Jean, growing more and more distraught in the absence of Juliette, dives overboard to search for her image in the river. Looking from here to there, his hair waving in the water, Jean hallucinates Juliette as Vigo superimposes her image on the water, all in white as on her wedding day. 
With these images, Jean Vigo makes style and content inseparable.

About Jon Towlson

Jon Towlson is a film critic and the author of CANDYMAN (DEVIL'S ADVOCATES) (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2018), THE TURN TO GRUESOMENESS IN AMERICAN HORROR FILMS, 1931-1936 (McFarland, 2016), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (CONSTELLATIONS) (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2016) and SUBVERSIVE HORROR CINEMA: COUNTERCULTURAL MESSAGES OF FILMS FROM FRANKENSTEIN TO THE PRESENT (McFarland, 2014).

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