Judge Gordon Sullivan somehow feels incomplete.
Our review of L'Atalante, published June 16th, 2003, is also available.
"These are the witty, visually adventurous works of a pivotal film artist."
The biographical portrait of Jean Vigo as the son of a famous anarchist who made a few scant films before expiring from complications due to tuberculosis threatens to overshadow his actual cinematic achievements. This overshadowing is not helped by the fact that he was largely ignored upon his death, and that it was only later that a new generation of filmmakers took up his work as a brilliant example of early cinema. Although his work went on to influence countless filmmakers—there's a reason that Criterion chose to release Linsday Anderson's If… on the same day as this set—Vigo's star perhaps never rose higher than when his lone feature L'Atalante found its way to the Top Ten of the 1962 Sight and Sound poll (though he would attain higher positions in later years). Despite Vigo's critical revival and continued influence on filmmakers, his work has had spotty availability. The lack of availability, the early (now defunct) genres of the work, and their perception as early critics' darlings have given Vigo's films a rarified air, like an exclusive club that only snobby film fans can belong to. Criterion has changed all that, collecting all four of Vigo's films into one beautiful set with extras that place this remarkable auteur in his times and show just how important his brief cinematic achievements continue to be.
The Complete Jean Vigo (Blu-ray) collects all four of the director's films on one Blu-ray disc:
• "À propos de Nice" is a short (23 minute) "city symphony" that takes a satirical look at the sunny, seaside town.
• "Taris" is another short (9 minute) film that makes a motion study of champion swimmer Jean Taris.
• "Zéro de conduit" looks at a French boarding school with an anarchic eye following the uprising of a few of the students.
• L'Atlante is Vigo's sole feature, and it looks at the life of Jean, a young man who has just married. On the honeymoon trip (travelling by boat), his new wife grows restless. On a stopover in Paris, she decides not to come back. Jean is overcome and must find his wife.
His posthumous fame demonstrates just how ahead of his time Vigo was, but for all his visionary power, his first two short films fit rather neatly into pre-existing film genres that were popular in his day. "À propos de Nice" fits neatly into other so-called "city symphonies" of the day, with the most famous example being Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Ostensibly a documentary (though the idea of what we now consider a documentary hadn't really solidified yet), "À propos de Nice" combines scenes photographed in Nice with stop-motion animation and other camera effects. The film can be read on one level as a kind of "travelogue" of the city showing us the different kinds of people who inhabit the city. On the other hand it's a poetic piece of filmmaking that makes a political point by the breadth of subjects it examines.
Similarly, "Taris" fits neatly into early cinema's experiments with so-called "motion studies." In their earliest incarnations, these films were novelties that filmed some kind of motion simply because they offered something that still photography couldn't provide. However, as directors mastered a great range of camera techniques (slow motion, etc.), they examined more and more complex movements in greater and great detail. "Taris" applies state-of-the-art cinematic techniques to the champion swimmer, Taris. We see him sail through the water, dive into the pool, and even move underwater all in combinations of slow motion, diverse angles, and startling close-ups. On the page, this seems like a rather dry exercise, like football players watching game reviews. In Vigo's hands, though, it's a poetic examination of the human form. The director plays with the rhythm of his subject, alternating his fast swimming with engrossing slow-motion shots that leave you wondering where the camera could by and why it's not splashed in water. It also helps that the whole thing seems to have been shot in an alternate world of black-and-white, where this swimmer swims in some Sisyphean task.
Despite the beauty of these two earlier films, if Jean Vigo had died just after their completion, he'd be little more than a footnote in cinematic history, gone like the names of so many other filmmakers from that era. No, despite the brilliance of those first films, Jean Vigo's reputation rests on his longer work. "Zéro de conduit" and L'Atalante cemented his place in the hearts and minds of cinema fans everywhere. And with good reason.
It's difficult to define precisely what was going on in French cinema as Vigo reached his artistic maturity. A movement dubbed "poetic realism" was afoot in France, and Vigo's films fit fairly comfortably alongside those of contemporaries like Renoir or Carné,. Poetic realism is an apt title as well, because it perfectly captures the way in which directors like Renoir (in Rules of the Game) and Vigo in "Zéro de conduit" took real-life subjects in real-life situations but treated them with a sensibility that doesn't feel gritty or down-to-earth. Instead, a film like "Zéro de conduit" looks at the lives of the boys at a boarding school, their petty authority figures and acts of rebellion, as if real life could itself be an allegory for some deeper truth. Rather than using a myth or a fairy tale to tell us about what it's like to live in a boarding school, Vigo uses a boarding school to give us a deeper understanding of life. The result is a film that's visually splendid, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun.
Finally, there's L'Atalante. It's a totally trite story: boy marries girl, girl realizes being married isn't all it's cracked up to be, girl leaves, boy pines, a search ensues. By all rights, the film should be just another romantic comedy/drama, long since forgotten by all but the obsessive. Instead, Vigo threw everything he had into L'Atalante, everything he'd learned on his previous films, and imbued his final feature with the sense of heightened weirdness that approaches realism from a different path. Using the water and its movements as a motif, Vigo constructs a story that meanders like a river but cuts just as deep. The film also has a dreamlike quality, a feverish intensity that imbues every aspect of the film with double and triple meanings.
Jean Vigo is obviously the king of this set, but cinematographer Boris Kaufman is the unsung hero of these films. Scholar Michael Temple (who appears in the extras) takes great pains to point out that the relationship between Vigo and Kaufman was one of true artistic collaboration, the young filmmakers pushing each other to new heights of achievement as they sought the poetic visions we see here. Kaufman would go on to great fame with On the Waterfront, but we get to see him joyously learning his craft here.
Criterion brings us all four of these films in stunning transfers, given their age. "À propos" and L'Atalante are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1, while "Zéro de conduit" and "Tarvis" are in their original ratios of 1.19:1. All four are AVC-encoded. These are not pristine, perfectly preserved prints (though L'Atalante did receive a thorough restoration in 2001). However, considering their age, they look amazing. This Blu-ray set reveals fine detail, appropriate grain, consistent contrast, and solid black levels. Despite the fact that all the movies (and the copious supplements) are on a single disc, no compression or authoring artifacts to be seen. On the negative side, expect flicker, a bit of shimmer, and some damage to the prints. None, however, are present to a distracting degree. The sound has not aged quite as well. "À propos" was originally silent and has been given a nice score by Marc Perrone, while the other three films get PCM tracks in uncompressed mono. The sources aren't pristine, with distortions and some odd mixing now and again, but they sound good for their age. The three sound features also have English subtitles for the French audio.
The extras are simply staggering. Scholar Michael Temple shows up for a commentary on all four films, discussing their history, filmic techniques, and impact on the cinematic world. The video centerpiece is an episode from French television that spends a little over 90 minutes surveying Vigo's life and work, featuring interviews with friends and collaborators. "Les voyages de L'Atalante" is almost as interesting. It's a 40-minute documentary that examines the restoration of Vigo's final film, tracing the fate of its many prints. We also get some alternate scenes from "À propos de Nice" that show the different directions the film could have taken. The disc then moves to more appreciative supplements. We get a 20-minute interview between French New Wave auteurs Truffaut and Rhomer discussing the influence of L'Atalante, a 30-minute piece with Russian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani (who saw the film in the Russian film archive in the 1960s), and a short animation from Michel Gondry detailing Vigo's influence on him. Finally, there's a nice booklet with appreciate essay from a number of writers detailing their love of Vigo's films.
All of Jean Vigo's films are old, French, and in black-and-white. For some people any one of those things would be a deal-breaker. Certainly Vigo's films don't have the same kind of quickly paced narrative drive we've come to expect of mainstream contemporary movies. It takes a bit of an adventurous spirit to take on The Complete Jean Vigo, but those who do will not be disappointed.
This is one of those sets that doesn't seem too amazing on first blush—another old French filmmaker gets his due. However, this is the kind of set that has legs. Buy it and years from now you'll still be haunted by the dissolves in "Taris" or the watery scenes of L'Atalante, and certainly don't blame me if you suddenly find yourself wanting to go to Nice. All joking aside, this is the kind of release that earns Criterion its sterling reputation. Important—not to mention good—films given a stunning presentation and surrounded by informative extras. Rent it if you have no idea who Jean Vigo is, and if you know exactly who that anarchist Frenchman was, you don't need me to tell you what to do.
Despite the brevity of his career, Jean Vigo is free to go.
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Scales of Justice, A Propos De Nice
Perp Profile, A Propos De Nice
Distinguishing Marks, A Propos De Nice
Scales of Justice, Taris
Perp Profile, Taris
Distinguishing Marks, Taris
Scales of Justice, ZeRo De Conduit
Perp Profile, ZeRo De Conduit
Distinguishing Marks, ZeRo De Conduit
Scales of Justice, L'Atalante
Perp Profile, L'Atalante
Distinguishing Marks, L'Atalante
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