Jean Vigo: a story of anarchy and love for cinema

Table of Contents

In the 1930s, France was the world capital of cinema, the place where cinema was born and where the cinematographic and artistic avant-gardes that influenced the whole world were most developed. After René Clair, Antonin Artaud and Jacques Feyder.

France was forced to confront war and the misery of the human condition. In cinema, a new style emerged, a new vision of the world: poetic realism, also called pessimistic realism. Directors such as Jean Renoir worked in the style of poetic realism, with films such as The Great Illusion and The Rule of the Game. Julien Duvivier with The Bandit of the Casbah and Marcel Carné with The Port of the Mists and Lost Lovers. Halfway between these two artistic currents, avant-garde and realism, lies the work of Jean Vigo.

Jean Vigo shot his only two films in a feverish state at the onset of the disease that would have led to his death. Sometimes on set he was forced to stay on a field hospital bed. Friends and colleagues were surprised that he wanted to continue the process and advised him to stop for a rest. 

But Jean Vigo didn’t want to know, for him completing the shooting of the film was a real existential mission. He knew he was sick and he knew his time was coming to an end. Perhaps it is this pressure, this urgency that allowed him to create two masterpieces? 

The production of the 1930s

The craft of cinema, unlike other artistic disciplines, has many flaws. It is a collective effort with many technical limitations. It is not a question of standing in front of a typewriter or in front of a canvas and relying exclusively on the flow of one’s creativity, which can become overwhelming. The making of a film progresses very slowly, in the midst of a thousand problems, especially at the time when Jean Vigo is making his films. 

Today the new independent directors of the 2000s work with very light cameras and digital editing systems with which, working alone in front of a computer, it is possible to do anything. But in 1930 there was a need for a heavy production apparatus, there was a need for a production company like Gaumont. 

Jean Vigo, the family anarchist

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Vigowas born in Paris on April 26, 1905. His father is Eugène Bonaventure de Vigo, known under the pseudonym of Miguel Almereyda, collaborator and founder of important anarchist newspapers such as Le Libertarie, “La Guerre Sociale ”and“ Le Bonnet Rouge ”. Miguel began attending anarchist circles in Paris and was targeted by the police in the spring of 1900. He was wrongfully arrested on charges of theft and served 2 months in prison. 

Released from prison he began working as a photographer and as a journalist writing for anarchist magazines such as Le libertaire. In one article he even detailed a plan on how to kill a corrupt judge. The police continued to monitor him and in 1901 they found explosives in his home and arrested him again. 

When he came out he intensified his activity as an anarchist writer but in 1905 there was a severe repression and 28 militants were arrested and sentenced. Miguel was punished with 3 years in prison and was released from prison only in 1906 thanks to an amnesty. In 1908 he was again sentenced to 2 years in prison for mutiny and remained in prison until mid-1909 

. Jean’s father continued to enter and leave prison, organizing anarchist circles and magazines, planning sabotages and political demonstrations. Until the last arrest occurred on his return from a trip to Switzerland. He was found in possession of a check in a foreign bank account for one hundred thousand francs. 

The suicide of his father

During the First World War in 1917, Jean’s father is accused of being a collaborator of Germany and is imprisoned. On the morning of August 14, 1917, he was found dead strangled with shoelaces tied to the bars of the bed. The case is filed as suicide, a hypothesis surpassed by the deterioration of health by now irreversible, but it was probably a murder.

He was too uncomfortable for the political context of the time and had become one of the most popular anarchists in the country, capable of influencing many people. The tragic event is destined to mark the life of the son. Immediately after the suicide, Gianvito will hide his identity so as not to be labeled as the son of the traitor of the homeland. 

Experience in boarding school

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Later he attended various schools but was always marginalized and unable to socialize with other children. He will be estranged from his mother and will be forced to spend a good part of his childhood and adolescence in boarding school, an experience that will tell the story of the film Zero for conduct. In boarding school he will begin to develop the signs of lung disease which will never leave him until he dies. Probably the negative experiences that had struck him on a spiritual level had also somatized on a physical level. 

During one of the numerous hospitalizations he meets his future wife, Elisabeth Lozinska called Lydu, with whom he shares a passion for cinema. He manages to enter the world of cinema in Nice thanks to the help of his friend Germain Dulac, one of the first French avant-garde female directors, who introduces him to the Franco film production house. 

The films of Jean Vigo

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Jean Vigo manages to make his first work a documentary entitled About Nice. It is a symphony of cities, a genre that at that time had been recognized as having great artistic value all over the world thanks to the films of Dziga Vertov as the man with the camera, and Berlin, the symphony of a city. The film is a glimpse into the social reality of Nice over the course of a day. 

Jean Taris, or swimming

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Always in Nice Together with his friends, Jean Vigo, he founded the film club Les amis du cinema, which remained in business for a few years. He later receives a commissioned work on swimming champion Jean Taris. It is a promotional film but Vigo manages to transform it into a work of multiple experiments, made up of sudden slow motion, intense close-ups and gazes into the camera, underwater shots that take on symbolic value, rhythmic sound cuts that alternate silence and deafening noise. 

Despite his young age Jean Vigò realizes things never seen before and reveals a total mastery of the cinematographic medium, with the ability to invent new and personal things. 

Zero for conduct

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Although fascinated by Nice, Vigo is no longer able to make films and decides to move to Paris where he comes into contact with producer Jacques-Louis Nounez. With him he makes the autobiographical film on the experience in boarding school Zero for conduct. The film will have a troubled processing both from a production point of view and from a distribution point of view. 

It will in fact be blocked by censorship until 1945 and Jean Vigò will never see his work in cinemas. The French government accused it of being a defamatory work of the French education system. 

L’atalante

The passion for the cinematographic art of the young Jean Vigo, however, is such as to allow him to overcome his disappointment and immediately devote himself to the making of his only fictional feature film, L’atalante, made between 1933 and 1934. 

It is the story of two spouses who go to live immediately after their wedding on the barge L’Atalante, where they have to face the first conflicting situations of living together, the routine of life on the barge along the river and the temptations of a big city like Paris. Romantic film about jealousy and love, which remained invisible until 1945, when it was also distributed in New York with the director’s original editing. 

The success of the film

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Rediscovered and popularized later by the directors and intellectuals of the New Wave in the 1960s, Atalante is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of French and world cinema. A work of poetic realism with surrealist sequences that manages to excite audiences from all over the world. Francois truffaut declares several times that gianvico was one of the main inspirers of his work: the 400 shots is nothing more than his personal version of Zero in Conduct. 

The film will be praised by film critics from different countries. James Agee, in France, called Vigo “one of the very few truly original directors who have ever worked in film”. In Great Britain, Roger Manvell called Vigo “perhaps the most original and promising of the great French directors”. 

In Italy, Luigi Comencini obtained a personal copy of L’Atalante and often showed it to his friends in private, defining the film “a masterpiece capable of shaking every consolidated notion of cinema that a savvy spectator may have”. The critic Georges Sadoul praised “the astonishing quality of poetry that emerged from a superficially ordinary and gray world”.

Jean Vigo in the history of cinema

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François Truffaut fell in love with the film when he saw it for the first time at the age of fourteen in 1946: “When I entered the cinema, I did not even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed by an enthusiasm wild for his work ». Emir Kusturica confessed to being a great admirer of Vigo and called him a “poet”. 

This admiration can be found in the underwater scenes of the film Underground that explicitly mention those of L’Atalante. Other films that contain tributes to L’Atalante include Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Leos Carax’s Lovers of Pont-Neuf, Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de amaour.

The untimely death of Jean Vigo

During the shooting of the film Jean Vigo’s septicemia increases until he is unable to complete the editing. The film was completed by the producers of Gaumont and was even renamed to Le Chaland qui passe. Meanwhile, Vigo’s health worsened and he died 5 October 1934. 

A part of the criticism, based on his life experience, gave Vigo the label of cursed, like Rambaud and Ferdinand Céline. In reality, in his films there is the lightness of irony and an optimistic vision of the world. He was not a cursed poet who wrote cursed poems but just in case a man who was forced to suffer from the outside the pressures of the social and cultural conditioning of the time. 

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