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Jean Vigo, The Seen and Unseen

The brief life of Jean Vigo (1905-1934) seethed with creativity and drama; his few but exciting […] Read more

The brief life of Jean Vigo (1905-1934) seethed with creativity and drama; his few but exciting films have been rediscovered and revered from generation to generation. Bringing to French cinema a search for realism and a poetic eye, his works, even fragmented, became touchstones for the New Wave – hence, the nickname “Saint Jean Vigo, patron of cine-clubs.”

Vigo’s father, the Catalan anarchist turned socialist Eugene Bonaventura de Vigo, raised Jean amidst chaos even before his mysterious death in prison in 1917. Subsequently, Jean was sent to a boarding school under a pseudonym, only retaking his father’s name as an adult at the Sorbonne. In 1926, he met his wife at a sanatorium for tuberculosis, a disease that ultimately killed him at age 29 in 1934. He left behind a daughter, critic Luce Vigo.

Vigo’s filmmaking was a call to “social realism.” Indeed, he scorned films where “a pair of lips take 3,000 meters to meet and just as long to come apart.” Not unsurprisingly, his career began with documentaries: his first short exposed the social divisions of the French resort city of Nice; a second focused on French swimming champion Jean Taris. While brief, these films show Vigo’s preoccupations with both real life and creative filmmaking, shaped in conjunction with cinematographer Boris Kaufman. The tension of enclosure and freedom and the creativity of the camera and soundscape permeate later works as well, augmented by growing an insightful characterization rather than impersonal subjects.

Ironically, Vigo’s masterworks were scarcely visible in his lifetime. His acerbic autobiographical examination of life in a boarding school (Zéro de Conduite , 1933) was censored and withheld until 1945. L’Atalante (1934) faced commercial problems with its languorous flow and bittersweet narrative. It was only released in a butchered version, renamed Le Chaland qui passe (The Passing Barge), which played briefly in theaters. Both films, however, were rediscovered in the 1940s and now have been restored and reconstructed lovingly, a process that the “rushes and outtakes” documentaries allow us to experience firsthand.

Further Readings:

Jean Vigo, The Seen and Unseen, From The Complete Jean Vigo Blu-ray Collector’s Set by The Criterion Collection
À propos de Nice, From The Complete Jean Vigo Blu-ray Collector’s Set by The Criterion Collection
À propos de Nice/ Taris: Champion de France/ Zéro de Conduite, From Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 Festival catalogue
Zéro de Conduite, From The Complete Jean Vigo Blu-ray Collector’s Set by The Criterion Collection
L’Atalante, From The Complete Jean Vigo Blu-ray Collector’s Set by The Criterion Collection

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