The Complete Jean Vigo Review

Jean Bonaventure de Vigo Almereyda, only made two short films and two feature films before he died in 1934 at the age of 29. Both films were the subject of much controversy in their day, showing an anarchic approach to filmmaking that did not fit into studio preconceptions as to how a film should be made. They were banned, cut and altered and never shown as intended, but in their restored form they are today considered as some of the most important works in French and world cinema. There had been nothing similar in film before them and there certainly hasn’t been anything like them since. Jean Vigo’s complete works have finally been released on a 2-disc set by Artificial Eye. The films have been fully restored to be as close as possible to how they were originally intended to look and come with a strong selection of extra features.

À Propos de Nice (1930) (21:43)

Jean Vigo’s earliest film is an attempt to capture the variety and style of life in the south of France through a rapid montage of silent images – the sporting attractions, the café culture, relaxing in the sun, showing off the latest fashions and being seen walking along the Promenade des Anglais. It also looks at the other side, showing the conditions of the poorer residents. Both aspects are brought together in the preparations for the carnival, capturing life, laughter, joy and dancing alongside images of death, poverty and misery – interspersed with some non-documentary and humoristic touches. The film shows great imagination in its choice of subject and how it is presented, capturing the verve and essence of not just Nice, but life itself in 22 minutes.

Extracts from the First Cut (27:49)
A longer cut of the film exists and is presented in full as an extra. Some scenes were trimmed back to remove repetition and it looks to me like one or two scenes are flipped over and shown mirror-imaged. The overall nature of the film is not greatly changed here though. There is no musical accompaniment to this version and it is divided into chapters to indicate the differences, though it can be played continuously.

La Natation par Jean Taris (1931) (09:16)

In ‘Swimming by Jean Taris’, the Olympic swimmer and 29-times French champion explains the mechanics of the crawl, breaststroke and other swimming techniques. The real techniques on display here though are the narrative, photographic and editing techniques employed by Vigo to relate the film, using slow-motion, underwater photography and dramatic use of underwater lighting.

Zéro de Conduite (1933) (41:59)

Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct) is a humorous little film, showing life at a boys’ boarding school where the students are constantly up to pranks, particularly one group of pupils who seem to be used to hearing the refrain “Bruel, Caussat, Colin… zéro de conduite!”. The boys team up with the new boy, the sensitive and impressionable young René Tabard, leading a rebellion to sabotage the school’s Commemoration Day. Subtitled “Little Devils At School”, the title is ambiguous considering the stature of the school’s principal and the conduct of the other teachers, which is less than exemplary. The film, based on Vigo’s own experiences of boarding school, is a beautiful little piece of work, full of epiphanic moments, showing marvellous visual language, humour and character observation. The film wasn’t well received by the Gaumont studio when it premiered and few people knew what to make of the film’s anarchic style – both in its approach to filmmaking and in its subject. The censors had a clear view however and the film was banned. To its credit, Zéro de Conduite still has the power to shock and surprise.

L’Atalante (1934) (85:19)

After the debacle following the premiere and banning of Zéro de Conduite, funding wasn’t easy to come by for Vigo’s second film. The studio, in an effort to tame the wayward director, gave Vigo an anodyne script of an unexceptional love story for his next film, L'Atalante, but unsurprisingly, Vigo managed to raise the film to another level entirely. Juliette marries Jean, the captain of L’Atalante and they begin their life together onboard the barge, sailing through the canals of France. Their only companions on the journey are the crazy, lecherous old ship's mate, Père Jules, a cabin boy and countless cats. Arriving in Paris, Juliette is seduced by the bright lights of the big city and the fancy patter of a travelling salesman, creating a situation that causes conflict onboard L’Atalante. Powerful, passionate, uproariously funny, deeply realist, yet at the same time romantically symbolic, Jean Vigo transcends the conventions of cinema we have come to know, capturing mood, character, emotion and something ineffable about relationships, hopes and aspirations.

It’s tragic to think that the complete Jean Vigo can be contained on one single DVD, but Artificial Eye have packaged the set well, including a fine selection of extra features to support the short, but highly important career of one of the most original and innovative of French directors. The set is a port of the acclaimed French edition released by Gaumont, with the addition of English subtitles that were not included on the French edition.

The video quality is superb considering the age of the material and how it has been treated over the years. The early short films, À Propos de Nice and Taris show many marks and scratches, but the films are nevertheless well-preserved with no serious damage – relatively speaking. The picture quality on Zéro de Conduite is variable – numerous lines and scratches can be seen, particularly at the start of reels, while other scenes show superb detail and tone. Overall though, black levels are good, damage is minimal and, considering the age of the material, it is quite impressive. L’Atalante was fully restored in 1990 and revisited again in 2001 in preparation for its release on DVD. This is the most accurate version of the original film ever assembled. The restored print looks marvellous – extremely clear, there are signs of marks and scratches that obviously haven’t been completely erased, but their impact on the film has nonetheless been minimised. It’s truly marvellous to see such a unique and striking looking film presented so well, and it makes all the difference.

As is to be expected from some of the earliest examples of talking movies, the quality of the audio tracks on each of the films is rough to say the least, but again, they have been fully restored to come across as effectively as possible. À Propos de Nice is a silent film, but an appropriate accordion-based score has been recorded for the film in stereo and it matches the tone of the images well. Taris retains its mono narration and is perfectly clear within the limitations of the recording techniques of the time. The same can be said about both Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante, both of which have carefully applied noise-reduction, minimising hiss and noise and presenting the voices and dialogue relatively clearly, although obviously Père Jules incoherent mumbling in L’Atalante is intended to be mumbled and unclear and there’s not much the sound engineers can do about that. Maurice Jaubert’s haunting score for L’Atalante comes across magnificently though. Considering the age of the film and the limitations of early sound recording equipment, there is little to complain about here.

English subtitles are optional for all films. The white text is not always completely clear against cluttered foregrounds, but for the most part, they are easily readable. The translation is a little loose for my liking, leaving out occasional lines and not even bothering to try and decipher some of Père Jules’ semi-obscure rants in L’Atalante, but by and large it captures the tone of the films well.

Filmmakers of Our Times – Jean Vigo (94:04)
This 1964 film by Jacques Rozier is an in-depth and illuminating examination of Vigo’s work, interviewing everyone close to him including the real-life Caussat (from Zéro de Conduite), producer Nounez, and almost all the cast of L’Atalante. The impression it gives of Vigo is of a man full of life, with a great sense of humour, vivacious and irreverent, but with a great tenderness for others. Unsurprisingly, that is reflected perfectly in the films he made.

The Voyages of L’Atalante (38:24)
This is a fascinating feature on the different versions of the film shown over the years, including extremely rare footage of rushes, outtakes and deleted scenes. It compares the differences in various takes and examines what Vigo was trying to achieve and the effect of studio cuts for the version of the film released as ‘Le Chaland Qui Passe’.

From L’Atalante to L’Atalante (09:56)
Made as an introduction to the 1990 restored version, this is a fine summary of the political and historical context the film was made in and the film’s troubled history.

Sound Regained (09:50)
This is an interesting look at the problems facing the sound restoration team.

Otar Iosseliani Interview (19:08)
Iosseliani recalls first seeing the film and what it was about the film that impressed him and inspired him to direct films. He describes the film beautifully as “That little boat sails through life and keeps on going. And we don’t know what dangers await her.

Jean Taris: Gaumont Newsreels (03:38)
Archive newsreel footage from 1935 and 1936 of the Taris winning the Paris championship.

Poster Gallery (02:23)
A chronological gallery of posters used for the different versions of L’Atalante and one poster for Zéro de Conduite. Beautiful.

Stills Gallery (01:53)
A selection of still photographs from all the Vigo films.

Jean Vigo Biography
A short biography covers Vigo’s family background and the history of his films.

The two feature films made by Jean Vigo – Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante are not only an important part of early French cinema, they remain two astoundingly brilliant examples of the filmmaking as an art form, conveying the original vision and the humanist nature of the director while having something simple yet important to say about life. Like Murnau who also died young and whose Sunrise is thematically close to L’Atalante, the early death of Vigo leaves the viewer wondering what paths cinema might have been taken if the young director had lived to explore his unique vision further. The director’s work is given full justice in this DVD release, preserving and presenting his films as they ought to be seen and providing a full disc of superb supporting material. Priceless.

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