Talking Pictures

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Jean Vigo

Posted by keith1942 on March 7, 2012


Jean Vigo on the set of L'Atalante

Jean Vigo was the son of a famous, even notorious French anarchist and journalist who went by the name of Almereyda [an anagram of  ‘‘its all shit’’]. Almereyda died in a French prison cell in 1917, probably at the hands of the authorities. Jean had a troubled childhood, being bought up under an assumed name [Salles] and being educated in several boarding schools, which he hated. There was a rift with his mother in his teens when he learnt more about his father’s travails and death. He suffered from tuberculosis and had to spend time in a sanatorium. Here he met and married Lydou [Elisabeth Lozinska]. They settled near Nice because of the warm and beneficial climate. Vigo’s great ambition was to make films and he used a gift of 10,00 francs from his father-in-law to buy a second-hand Debrie 35mm camera.

Whilst gaining experience as an assistant on a current film production Vigo met Boris Kaufman, an experienced cameraman. Kaufman claimed to be the brother of Soviet filmmakers Mikhail and Denis Kaufman [the latter is better known as Dziga Vertov]. Kaufman acted as cinematographer on all of Vigo’s films. Vigo’s circle of friends and supporters was very important for his career. They supported him through illness, encouraged his work and actively sought out backers. A number later developed their own careers in film; Kaufman went to Hollywood and won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954).

Vigo’s first film was a documentary about the town where he lived, À propos de Nice (1930). It used Soviet style montage [editing] to draw surprising contrasts across society and to offer unusual even shocking images. The film had a strong satirical quality, caustically depicting the leisured classes and the Casino attraction. Its climax was the annual carnival, which the camera explored with real joie de vivre [ebullience]. Water was and continued to remain a central motif in most of Vigo’s film work. The film was screened a few times in Paris, including at the Vieux-Colombier: the regular venue for the avant-garde works of the times. It was well received by a partly young audience interested in the new and the experimental. However, the film did not garner great attention elsewhere nor did it generate any profits for further work.

The Carnival sequence from A propos de Nice.

Back in Nice Vigo launched a member-only film club, Amis du Cinéma, with friends. It specialised in films that had suffered from censorship or banning, including the Soviet masterpieces like The Battleship Potemkin (1925). In 1930 he also attended the “Deuxième Congrès du Cinéma Indépendant” in Brussels. Other filmmakers there included Sergei Eisenstein, Germaine Dulac, and younger artists like Joris Ivens and Henri Storck. The last-named was to become a particular friend of Vigo and to work on his films.

The support of colleagues like Dulac also obtained Vigo a commission from the Gaumont Company to direct a short sport documentary. This was a film a sort of lesson in swimming techniques by the national champion Jean Taris. Filmed mainly in the Automobile Club de France pool, this was sound film with a spoken commentary. Sound recording on film was still in its infancy and the techniques for ‘mixing’ different sound sources were undeveloped. One can hear the cuts on the soundtrack of the film as they change. Vigo himself expressed most interest in the relationship of the swimmer’s body to water. There are some typical edits to produce surprise effects and the use of variable camera speeds

Vigo failed to find more film work and had to sell his Debrie camera. And in 1931 Lydou and he had a daughter Luce. That year he also met Chaplin who visited Nice, but neither was unable to speak the other’s language. Meanwhile he and his family partly survived on money from the in-laws. He started work on a further film documentary, but it was never made. Meanwhile he was active in the French film-club movement.

In 1932 friends introduced him to Jacques-Louis Nounez, a businessman and horse breeder. Nounez had little knowledge of the film industry but he was a keen admirer of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, René Clair and Jean Renoir. He thought there was an opening for medium-length features, about 4,000 feet: that is a running time of about 45 minutes for sound film.  Nounez was also friendly with an established actor René Lefèvre. Several possible scenarios were considered till a story about children and schooling was agreed. Nounez made a deal to use the Gaumont Studios and provided a budget of 200,000 francs. In fact, Vigo performed most of the producer functions, in which he was fairly inexperienced. The crew was predominantly Vigo’s friends and close colleagues; the cast locally recruited amateurs, including school students, with a few professional actors like Lefèvre and Jean Dasté.

The film, Zéro de Conduite, had a week’s accommodation at the Gaumont studio. Vigo’s ill-health intervened, and they were able to get an extension but even so had to rush the latter stages, filming as the studio clock marched towards the expiry of their time. There was also location filming at an actual school. During the editing stages the young composer Maurice Jaubert provided a musical score. Sound on film was still fairly primitive as was the equipment available to the production, and this is one of the technical weaknesses of the film. The finished film was clearly low budget, but it combined scenes with a strong realist feel, moment of genuine surrealist wonder and magic, and a strong anarchic critique of the oppression common in schooling and the adult domination of the childhood world.

Zero de Conduite features many aspects of the boarding school regime that Vigo would have suffered in his own youth. The staff are by and large authoritarian, crass in terms of real education and completely lacking in sympathy or empathy for the world of their young charges. The one exception is a new and young master, Huguet, who shows some affinity with the boys in the school. The finished film clearly suffers from the low budget. However, it develops a strong engagement with the schoolboys. The film’s last reel are justly famous. There is a lyrical sequence in the dormitory where the antics of the boys are shot in slow motion. This is followed by a rebellion due the school’s speech day, when a quartet of rebels disrupts proceedings from the roof. The initial screening included a sizeable presence by distributors and exhibitors, who generally disliked the film. Very shortly after the film was banned by the official censors and remained so in France until after the war. It did receive a few screening abroad. When it re-appeared it was extremely influential: François Truffaut’s Le quatre cents coups (1959) and Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) are two film clearly influenced by the earlier work of Vigo.

The dormitory sequence - Zero de Conduite

Despite the fate of Zéro de Conduite Nounez continued supporting Vigo. He had a number of possible projects, however to avoid further problems with the authorities and industry, Nounez selected a script for a feature length film. This was an original script, L’Atalante, by R. de Guichen [pen name Jean Guinée]. This was a romantic story about a young couple, Jean and Juliette, on the barge L’Atalante. There was a small cycle of stories involving barges and canals in French cinema in the 1920s and 1930s: Jean Renoir’s initial foray on film involved one. Vigo adapted the screenplay with his friend Albert Riéra. Nounez put up one million francs and found two fairly well known stars for the film, Michel Simon and Dita Parlo. Once again the production arrangements were with Gaumont, who would also control distribution. The crew was similar to Zéro, but enlarged to handle the larger production and budget. An important addition was the editor Louis Chavance, who was experienced in sound film. The filming involved both studio work and location work on an actual barge and canals. The winter conditions aggravated Vigo’s ill health. By the time came to post-production he was bedridden. Chavance produced a final cut, which Vigo approved; though it seems he intended to make minor changes after a company preview.

Vigo’s version of the story follows the early months of a marriage, between barge captain and Jean and a young village girl Juliette. Following their marriage they immediately set off on the barge to make a delivery. A cabin boy and Père Jules, an eccentric, larger than life character, accompany them. He keeps a bevy of cats on the barge: changed by Vigo from the original dog in the script. The story is linear and strongly plotted. The strains of the marriage, constrained on the confined space of the barge, are accentuated by a charming, roguish peddler they meet on a night out. Juliette leaves for a time and visits the city, where she is lost in the vast urban machine. She is rescued by Jules who returns her to the barge and Jean.

Jean, Juliette and the Peddler

The tale is simple but what makes it telling memorable is the poetry and lyricism of the film. Much of the production was filmed in location and there are magical shots in the mist and at night-time. The evening ashore and a number of sequences in Jules cabin would have delighted the surrealists with their unconventionality and use of ‘found objects’. Most notable is an underwater sequence when Jean ‘sees’ Juliette, a confirmation of her prophetic maxim earlier in the film. Seventy years on it retains all the freshness and vitality that impressed earlier critics. It is a film that seems particularly popular with other filmmakers, and has become a major influence, especially for independent filmmakers.

L’Atalante does, though, lack the overt political resolution of Zéro de Conduite. To a degree Nounez’s decision to use a pre-existing script did, in some measure, restrict Vigo’s filmmaking. The film does contain political points besides the unconventional. During Juliette’s sojourn in Paris she [and we] are introduced to the problems of unemployment and poverty. But this is not central to the film. And the resolution does resolve away the contradiction of the marriage, which in reality would surely have resurfaced. L’Atalante is in its own way a prefect creation and certainly superior to Zéro de Conduite in aesthetics terms. However, it is more about Vigo’s poetry than his anarchism: the latter film seems to me to have a unique quality in its depiction of youthful rebellion. I do rather feel that the elevation of L’Atalante in Vigo’s output is similar to the way that so many critics prefer Kes in Ken Loach’s output. Both are political films but a viewer can focus on the central story and pay less attention to the critical aspects.

In fact, in the 1930s this was a comparison that audiences did not have any chance to make. Gaumont proposed substantial changes to the final cut, and a further screening for distributors received a cold reception. Vigo was now seriously ill. Nounez caved in and agreed to changes.

These were drastic. About 25 minutes were cut from the finished film. Part of Jaubert’s music was excised and replaced with a current poplar tune ‘Le Chaland qui passe’ (The Passing Barge]. The cut film was now re-titled with that of the new song. Released into cinemas it was not a success. Jean Vigo died of septicaemia on October 5th 1934.

His final feature L’Atalante was re-released in 1940 in a cut version, but with its original title and Jaubert’s music restored. After the war the film became popular in the Fédération Française des Ciné-Clubs. This, and Vigo’s other films, won the admiration of both filmmakers and critics involved in the Nouvelle Vague. In 1962 the film achieved 10th placed in the Sight & Sound second poll of film critics for the ‘greatest films of all time’.

In 1985 Gaumont bought up the Franfilmdis Company, which retained the production materials left from L’Atalante in 1934. In 1989 Gaumont set about a restoration of the film, which was assisted by the discovery of a 1934 pre-release print in the bfi archives. Lobster Films, who specialise in restoration work, were bought in to restore the soundtrack. With both vision and sound the restorers had to make judgements about shots, lengths and cuts. They talked to surviving member of the original production to try and get a clear picture of the director’s intention. And in 1990 the restored print appeared: a complete version, though further restoration work was made on the soundtrack in 2001. This is the 35mm print available from the bfi, as close as we can get to Vigo’s dream and with vastly improved image and sound.

Now Jean Vigo has been elevated to the pantheon of filmmakers in World Cinema. This is on the basis of one of the shortest film careers, which produced less than three hours of screening time. However, these are poetic stories, filmed with lyricism and still exercising an important influence nearly eighty years on.



À propos de Nice. (1930). Black and white, silent film.

Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Director of Photography: Boris Kaufman.

Filmed on location in Nice. First screened Paris, May 28, 1930.  

Taris (1931 Jean Taris, champion de natation; Taris, roi de l’eau.). 8 minutes, black and white, sound film.

Production Company – Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert. Executive Producer – C. Morskoï. Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Assistant director – Ary Sadoul. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman.

Filmed in the swimming pool of the Automobile Club de France, and at the G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris. 


Zéro de Conduite (1933). 44 minutes, black and white, sound film.

Production Company – Argui-Films. Executive producer – Jacques-Louis Nounez. Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Assistant directors – Albert Riéra, Henri Storck, Pierre Merle. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman. Camera assistant – Louis Berger. Art directors – Jean Vigo, Henri Storck, Boris Kaufman. Music – Maurice Jaubert. Songs – Maurice Jaubert, Charles Goldblatt. Sound – Royne, Bocquel.

Cast: Louis Lefëvre (Caussat), Gilbert Pluchon (Colin), Gérard de Bédarieux (Tabard), Constantin Goldstein-Kehler (Bruel), Jean Dasté (Huguet), Robert le Flon (M. Parrain, known as Dry-Fart). Delphin (The Principal).

Filmed at G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris, and on location at Saint-Cloud and at Belleville-la-Villette railway station, December 24 1932 – January 22, 1933. First screened in Paris, April 7 1933; banned in France; first public performance in Paris, November 1945.

L’Atalante (1934). 89 minutes, black and white sound.

Production Company – Argui-Films. Executive producer – Jacques-Louis Nounez.

Producer and director – Jean Vigo. Assistant directors – Albert Riéra, Charles Goldblatt, Pierre Merle. Written by Jean Vigo, Albert Riéra. Based on an original scenario by Jean Guinée. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman. Camera assistants – Louis Berger, Jean-Paul Alphen. Editor – Louis Chavance. Music – Maurice Jaubert. Songs – Maurice Jaubert.


Filmed at G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris, and on location at Conglans-Saint-Honorine, Maurecourt, Paris, and on various canals, November 15 1933 – end of February 1934. First shown in Paris, April 25, 1934. First public performance (as Le Chaland qui passe) September 13, 1934; first public performance of L’Atalante in Paris, October 30, 1940.


Cast: Michel Simon — Le père Jules ; Dita Parlo — Juliette; Jean Dasté — Jean; Gilles Margaritis — Le camelot; Louis Lefèvre — Le gosse; Maurice Gilles — Le chef de bureau; Raphaël Diligent — Raspoutine, le batelier (as Rafa Diligent)

 Adapted from notes for a screening of L’Atalante at the National Media Museum. A biopic, Vigo Passion for life (1998) was directed by Julian temple.


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