When an important director’s entire output can be viewed over the course of one long sitting, there’s usually perfectionism or tragedy to blame. With Jean Vigo, it’s decidedly the latter. In Vigo’s short career—his filmography includes two short films, one full feature, and one short feature, all released between 1930 and his death in 1934 at the age of 29—he made movies that didn’t worry much about letting the rough edges show, a choice that made their moments of rapturous beauty that much more stunning. The career itself had some rough edges, with Vigo’s films either failing to find an audience, running afoul of censors, otherwise getting chopped up and mishandled, or falling into obscurity before getting championed by the French New Wave. (They knew a forefather when they saw one.)
The Complete Jean Vigo, as its name suggests, gathers the entirety of Vigo’s output, and copious extras, into one collection, starting with the 1930 silent effort À Propos De Nice. An avant-garde travelogue inspired by Un Chien Andalou and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov’s brother, Boris Kaufmann, was Vigo’s cinematographer), Nice mixes surreptitiously shot found images of the French coastal city with composed, sometimes surreal imagery, all of it edited at a furious pace. Vigo meant it as a critique of Nice’s decadence, and the 22-minute film’s frenetic restlessness and images of a bacchanalian festival help give that impression. Like Koyaanisqatsi, its spiritual descendant, beauty sometimes blunts the point, but gloriously so: Whatever the film’s intentions, Nice captures a director in love with his ability to make images. So too does Taris, a short commissioned to praise French swimming champ Jean Taris in which Vigo uses slow motion and other camera tricks to give his demonstration of various swimming strokes a lyrical spin.
With Zero De Conduite, Vigo returned to making the films he wanted to make with a tale of rebellion at a boarding school for boys. It was shot quickly and on a low budget for a businessman who, per B. Kite’s essay in the set’s liner notes, “believed he’d spotted an unoccupied niche in the European market for ‘medium-length’ films” then pared down from Vigo’s original vision of the project both before and after filming. Consequently, Zero often feels less like a cohesive film than snapshots from a dream. In scenes given only the faintest connective tissue, students meet, react to their oppressive environment, encounter one sympathetic teacher and many more taskmasters, and plot a rebellion as undercurrents of nascent sexuality and generational warfare ripple under their feet.
The film is subtitled “Little Devils At School,” but Vigo’s sympathies rest squarely with the devils. As the son of famous anarchist who died in prison under mysterious circumstances when Vigo was 12, how could he not feel for the rebels? But the film is less interested in making a coherent political statement than coming down—majestically—on the side of freedom as a general principal. Its protagonists submit to the humiliation of lives defined by order and punishment until they can’t submit anymore, and the film erupts in a riot of high spirits and flying feathers
Vigo fills Zero with unforgettable images, but his gift for image-making finds its fullest expression in L’Atalante, his final and finest film. Vigo didn’t originate the story of a young married couple facing difficulty while working on a commercial barge, but he clearly saw in it the chance to elevate a potentially mawkish film to poetry. Dita Parlo stars as provincial girl who marries a skipper (Jean Dasté). Leaving her home for the first time with dreams of Paris, she finds instead the dreary realities of life on the river. Their relationship seems imperiled almost from the start, the situation made no better by the presence of a boisterous, well-traveled sea hand (Michel Simon).
The entire plot of L’Atalante could be described in a few sentences, but the story matters less than the moods it allows Vigo to create and the visual flights spun off from those moods. Vigo lingers on the details of life on the barge, from the cats that run amok on deck to the knickknacks stuffed into Simon’s quarters—including a jar containing a dead friend’s hands. Then the grunginess gives way to stunning sequences of cinematic poetry, as when the lovers, parted from each other, yearn to be together again as they sleep in separate beds. It’s a highly romantic film that, however paradoxically, rests on the notion that love only becomes real once the first blush of romance fades. L’Atalante is made all the more poignant by another paradox: that a film so brimming with life could be shot by a dying man. Vigo barely lived to see it released (and then in a harshly cut form). He left only four films behind, but it was still the work of a lifetime.
Key features: Many. Each film has a commentary track by Vigo scholar Michael Temple. The set also contains several documentaries made over the years, including a conversation about Vigo by Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, and a short, perfect animated tribute by Michel Gondry.