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Second Look: 'The Complete Jean Vigo' coming Aug. 30

The ill-fated French filmmaker displayed a budding brilliance before his death at 29 in 1934. His work influenced many who followed, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

August 21, 2011|By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Du Verron stars in the short film "Zro De Conduite."
Du Verron stars in the short film "Zro De Conduite." (Criterion Collection )

Minute for minute, there is almost certainly no more influential figure in all of cinema than Jean Vigo. You could watch all his films in a single sitting in about the time it takes to get through "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Vigo's one feature and three shorts fit on a single DVD — and they will be available Aug. 30 in a Criterion Collection set titled "The Complete Jean Vigo" (both standard-definition and Blu-ray), supplemented with a second disc of extras that includes tributes, new and old, from his many illustrious fans, among them François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Michel Gondry.

Before the 85-minute "L'Atalante" (1934), a landmark of early sound cinema and one of the most beloved French films of all time, Vigo made three shorts ranging from nine to 44 minutes. In October 1934, not long after his first feature had concluded its disappointing theatrical run, he died of tuberculosis at age 29, a neglected figure at the margins of the industry who had seen one of his films ("Zéro de Conduite") banned by the French authorities and another ("L'Atalante") recut and retitled by its producer.

Revived in the Paris film clubs of the 1940s, Vigo's work found an eager new audience, including the likes of Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. (Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" quotes directly from "Zéro de Conduite"; Godard dedicated his antiwar film "Les Carabiniers" to Vigo, and his "In Praise of Love" alludes to "L'Atalante.") One of the most prestigious prizes in French cinema, presented annually since the early '50s to a promising young director, is called the Jean Vigo Prize.

Vigo lends himself to romanticization, and not just because of his tragic early death and the aura of unfulfilled promise. He led a brief but colorful life as a fellow traveler of the French surrealists and the son of a well-known anarchist who was apparently murdered in prison. Vigo's first film, the silent, 23-minute "À Propos de Nice" ("On the Subject of Nice"), part of the "city symphony" genre that flourished in the 1920s, confirmed that the young Jean was very much his father's son.

The film's clinical title belies its polemical vigor. A portrait of the Mediterranean resort town, it sets images of promenading tourists and lounging bourgeoisie against scenes of the poor in the city's back alleys and resolves the opposition in the concluding sequence of a raucous street carnival, the expression of an irrepressible life force.

All of Vigo's films were shot by Boris Kaufman, brother of the Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov and a successful Hollywood cinematographer later in his career (his credits include "On the Waterfront"). Kaufman and Vigo's flair for offhand poetry can be seen even in the commissioned quickie "Taris" (1931), a documentary sketch of champion swimmer Jean Taris, enlivened by deft camera trickery and some lovely underwater photography that anticipates the best-known scene in "L'Atalante," in which the skipper hero dives off his barge hoping for a glimpse of his true love.

Vigo's childhood, much of it spent at boarding schools, informs "Zero de Conduite" (1933), a deeply personal paean to rebellion that pits oppressed students against buffoonish and grotesque authority figures. The astonishing ending — in which a pillow fight leads to the total upheaval of the social order — so unnerved the censors that the film was not exhibited in France until after Vigo's death.

Urged by a producer to make a more conventional film, Vigo produced "L'Atalante." It's a simple love story in many ways — and yet as strange and haunting as a dream while remaining uncommonly clear-eyed about the complications of coupledom. A work of surpassing tenderness and luminosity, it's alive in ways that few films are, thanks partly to the expressive physicality of the performances (by Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo as the newlyweds, and Michel Simon as a tattooed old salt) and the vivid impressions of working-class riverside life and of Paris in the 1920s.

Vigo's cinema never lost its documentary moorings, its hunger for the real and love of the world. Vigo may have attained godhead status, but his films are hardly perfect objects. Made under difficult conditions by a prodigious talent who was still finding his way in an evolving medium, they exhibit not consummate mastery but an off-kilter poetry and a restless, even prankish energy. They are, in the best sense possible, a young man's films.

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