With only four films to his name, running under three hours combined, Jean Vigo has one of the easiest filmographies to get through if you’re working through the oeuvres of great filmmakers. But even though Vigo died at 29 from tuberculosis and surely never fully realized his potential, he left behind a body of work that features quality inversely proportional to its quantity.
Criterion has put together a superb package of all four of Vigo’s films, titled The Complete Jean Vigo. The films included are:
À propos de Nice (1930)
A silent semi-documentary about the coastal town of Nice, À propos de Nice stands alongside similar films Man with a Movie Camera and People on Sunday as an energetic, effervescent portrait of a city in motion. Vigo’s film has a satiric edge about societal decadence that requires more contextual information to really grasp, but even without it, its straddling of surrealism and realism points toward the precise balance Vigo would strike in each of his films.
A delightful 9-minute short about Olympic swimmer Jean Taris, the film begins as a sort of crash course in proper swimming technique and veers off into a magical underwater world. The images Vigo captures of Taris submerged in the pool, swimming and twirling in the water, have a bewitching quality that’s hard to explain. The film reminds me of the work of Jean Painlevé, a friend of Vigo’s whose underwater films of sea life created similarly surreal images from totally natural happenings.
Zéro de conduite (1933)
A brash, fragmented tale of youths rebelling at a boarding school, Zéro de conduite is Vigo’s first strictly fiction film, and he packs an immense amount of content into its 44 minutes. The film understands the essence of childhood, down to its very structure, with is fitful starts and stops and wide-eyed lack of focus. Loosely, the film is about a group of boys’ plans to ruin their school’s commemoration day, but Vigo clearly isn’t interested in presenting a strong narrative through-line. Rather, it’s the film’s anarchic spirit that comes through loudest and clearest — it’s a tightly wound sucker punch of disorderly behavior that was banned by French censors for more than a decade.
Vigo’s final film, L’Atalante, is also considered one of the finest ever made, and one can see the culmination of his various approaches in his previous films applied here to a more conventional narrative. The film concerns itself with Jean and Juliette (Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo), a pair of newlyweds embarking on their new life on a barge where Jean is captain. They go from wedded bliss to disillusionment fast, with neither adjusting particularly well to the new situation.