French director Jean Vigo, who died when he was only 29, became an inspiration for several generations of innovative filmmakers.
Never has a filmmaker been so influential, with such a short career, as the French director Jean Vigo. With only three films to his name, Vigo, who died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of 29, became a major influence on young film artists in France and around the world, his themes and style, reflected in the French New Wave of the ‘60s, the American ‘70s renaissance, and beyond. His parents were militant anarchists, his father arrested for protesting World War I, and assassinated in prison in 1917. Living under an assumed name, Vigo became rebellious after enduring a series of miserable boarding schools, and in the mid-1920s decided to try his hand at filmmaking.
His first film, À Propos de Nice, made in 1930, was a documentary showing the contrast between the lives of different classes in the French city. The film failed to make money, and Vigo had sunk all his funds into it. Two years later, a friendly businessman financed his second film, based on Vigo’s experiences in boarding school, called Zero for Conduct. In the style, the film tried everything commercial films wouldn’t do, including disorienting camera angles, slow motion, and extensive long shots. The story ruthlessly contrasts the vulnerability and mischief of the boys in the school with the petty cruelty and stupidity of the staff, and includes surrealistic touches, like having the school principal played by a dwarf with a long beard. The film ends in mayhem, and after causing great interest and controversy, it was banned by the government in 1933.
Vigo’s final film, his masterpiece, was 1934’s L’Atalante, the story of a young barge captain who marries a village girl and takes her away on a journey down the Seine. This time, Vigo created a film of great delicacy, humor, and mysterious beauty. The gliding camera movement matches the constant movement of the boat, and there’s a bittersweet feeling as the young bride runs away to Paris, leaving the husband to regret his treatment of her in a celebrated underwater dream sequence. The first mate, Père Jules, is played by the great character actor Michel Simon, and it’s one of the finest comic performances in film history. With a collection of kittens crawling over him at all times, the gruff and totally eccentric Père Jules is like an old Cupid to the struggling young couple.
L’Atalante is a film with greatness that is hard to describe, combining a delicious visual poetry with an offbeat sense of humor and sentiment. It was attacked by most of the critics, and then butchered by the film company, and Vigo died later that year. The picture was restored to its original form in the ‘80s, and is now considered a classic.