Dignity from the Gutter

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Review of the Complete Jean Vigo DVD box set, director Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo is best remembered for his masterpiece L'Atalante, a conventional romance presented in his unmistakably anarchic fashion. However, L'Atalante was a production whose plot was largely dictated to Vigo by his production company and distributors. It was chosen by these bastions of bourgeois censorship for its conventional sentimentality, which left little scope for any originality or controversy. It is a mark of Vigo's genius for presentation that such a plot has endured, and retains its vitality, 70 years after its first screening.

Jean Vigo was born on 26 April 1905, the only child of anarchist activists. His father was known as Miguel Almereyda, the editor of La Guerre Sociale and later Le Bonnet Rouge - polemical publications that sought to link the trade union movements with anarchist groups. Almereyda opposed the First World War and was persecuted alongside other 'defeatists' by French nationalists. The young Vigo witnessed the murder of anti-war socialist Jean Jaurès at first hand and became hardened to the brutality of the state when in 1917 his father was arrested on charges of espionage and murdered in prison. The young Jean Vigo was subsequently rejected from every Parisian school as the child of a traitor.

Vigo's first film, A Propos de Nice, was an avant-garde critique of Nice society: a city split between those enjoying the booming economy and growth of middle class power, and those who had been left behind by the changing economy. Vigo uses shots from gutter level to emphasise both the misery and the dignity of the worker's lives; this is juxtaposed with the crude 'entertainments' enjoyed by the middle class in their attempt to ignore the horror surrounding them. The decadence and unnatural symmetry of the period's architecture appears to mock the plight of those who are forever barred from their grand entrances and locked gates.

A Propos de Nice was in stark contrast to the banal, individualistic cinema that France's nouveau-riche demanded. Initially this short film was received well when it premiered at Vieux-Colombier in Paris, but its distribution was extremely limited and Vigo soon found himself in such dire financial circumstances that he was forced to sell his secondhand camera. Faced with these conditions Vigo realised that financial backing from outside sources would be the only means to secure his directorial independence.

This backing came from Jacques-Louis Nounez, who effectively gave Vigo carte blanche as director. While Vigo would have liked to produce a screen adaptation of the Reichstag fire on the scale of Battleship Potemkin, by which he had been strongly influenced, Nounez's financial support could not extend to such costs, and no other help was forthcoming.

Drawing upon his experience of being forced to live with relatives he barely knew, and adopting a false name in order to gain a place at school, Vigo instead produced what may be considered to be the forerunner of Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education in the form of Zéro de Conduite. This privately financed production allowed Vigo to explore new aspects of cinematography, producing some of the most memorable scenes ever captured on camera. Rather than use po-faced actors for the roles, Vigo preferred to choose ordinary people who looked the part of the characters. His landlord played the housemaster, and even the leading boys were children who had simply been chosen while going about their usual business on the streets of Paris. It is this authenticity which lends credence to a runaway plot of student revolt against authority. Such sentiments of animosity towards the church, the teaching establishment and tradition were excuse enough for the censors to ban the film in its entirety. It would not be seen in France until 1945.

After the loss of Zéro de Conduite Nounez was no longer able to financially back Vigo, although he continued to support his work. Vigo was forced to accept the conventionally soppy plot offered to him by the production company. L'Atalante has none of the overt subversion seen in Vigo's other works, but remains defiant in tone and imagery; even given the individualistic nature of the plot he was offered, Vigo manages to incorporate a wider social commentary. The sentimental tale of a young wife lured by the temptations of Paris becomes, under Vigo's direction, also a fierce critique of women's position in French society, the treatment of the unemployed and the injustice of contemporary society.

It is this application of cinematic technique to concrete conditions that has ensured Vigo's continued influence. Although the range of cinematic effects and devices has multiplied manifold times since Vigo directed his works, they do not seem dated. Even without colour technology and the other tricks of the camera that today's productions deem necessary, these productions are accessible and relevant to modern audiences. We can only wonder what the consequences of Jean Vigo being able to produce without outside interference would have been, but there has seldom been a stronger argument for the development of independent working class communication, on paper and screen.