We romanticize the sustainability of authentic affection—itself a fabulist ideal, a useful fiction—because of the cruel truth that the deeper two people feel for one another, the more often they will be called upon to withstand estrangement. The passing of time simply brings opportunities for jaundice and abandonment; it cannot be avoided. Furthermore, conventional wisdom tells us that relationships of mutual or unilateral obsession are unhealthy partly because of the need to maintain space for personal, maybe even isolated, development; we’re “supposed” to ache for another, but not to the extent that it haunts this real estate of individuality. (Is this why the less distracting glow of fondness, the language of the archetypal elderly couple who has somehow beat the odds and achieved togetherness in virtual perpetuity, considered a particularly sturdy kind of love?) I have, like most, been bedeviled by the desire—as well as taken aback by a lack of longing—for a distant lover. And yet what ensured, threatened, or characterized those relationships was never the level of our yearning, or the manner in which it poisoned our lives while in obligatory alienation. It was how that yearning—the volatile, amorphous creature skulking the root of our spines—necessitated and informed compromise.
Compromise is not a word that immediately springs to mind when we consider cinematic wunderkind Jean Vigo, arguably the godfather of more European film-art dendrites than any other director. A curious confluence of technical adroitness and emotional nuance, Vigo’s premorse cinema (he died at 29, of tuberculosis) exhibited a blend of raw and refined that inspires effusiveness. Standing on the cusp of film’s totter into the sound era, and amid a period of photo-technological fecundity, his brief oeuvre—produced, it must be said, almost exclusively with maestro cinematographer Boris Kaufman—is both a veritable microcosm of the leaps and bounds the industry would make in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and a nigh-unparalleled apogee of personal style. Despite the relative newness of double exposure, cross dissolves, freeze frames, and slow motion, Vigo employed them all without succumbing to gimmickry. Mimicking corporeal rhythms with the camera, his films limn the realm of the unhindered body, of the anarchic lust for unattainable justice, of puppy love that over-spills from those who it inflicts to form puddles, ponds, oceans. And yet the rendering of this exuberance would seem hopelessly foolish were it not so patient, so willing to acknowledge, to forgive, and most crucially to poeticize fallibility.
In Vigo’s best work, L’Atalante, a newlywed couple becomes separated after the bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo), is momentarily tempted away from the dingy barge home of her groom, Jean (Jean Dasté), by the lights of Paris. Finding her absent, Jean becomes infuriated and leaves the docks of the French metropolis a day ahead of schedule. Later that night, while a mournful Juliette beds down in a cheap hotel and her husband sleeps alone in his skipper’s quarters, a montage astoundingly communicates the intense mistake of their severance. Through cross-fades we see them toss and turn and grip their own bodies in vain as they might have desperately clutched one another, as well as occasionally leer toward the camera with Warholian grimaces. Jean rises at one point, his eyes carnally buggy; we transition to Juliette, barely touching her breasts while easing down as if in her man’s wanting embrace. The oneiric pacing and subtle, wistful sexuality of this sequence is poetic realism defined: It goes directly for the jugular, but it does so with such lyricism that we experience the blow at a manageable distance that facilitates reflection.
The montage above also illustrates the sublime eeriness of Vigo’s aesthetic. Though essentially representational, a cross-bleeding metaphor for haptic regret, the actors’ fourth-wall-breaking orientations infuse the scene with a curious theatricality. The compromise here, the mediator, is the audience; Vigo uses us to complete what becomes a triangular study of human folly and sincerity, since the lovers’ respective experiences sleeping alone can only become shared through our witnessing (and Vigo’s juxtaposition). This is why they look to us: We are what connects them, like a husband and a wife on opposite coasts peering at the same constellation and hijacking it from the sky to use as an objective correlative.
Formal abstractions of this nature have a wealth of antecedents in silent and early avant-garde film, particularly the “gotcha!” structural nervousness of German Expressionism and its descendents, but Vigo’s singularity is in his near-invisible merging of film-as-spectacle and film-as-study. Through a Méliès-like magic trick he both tortures and relieves conjugal brokenness (and so obviously for our amusement) while deepening our experience of his fictional universe as in Murnau or Griffith. And yet, unlike either of those early narrative masters, Vigo was not a sentimentalist. He escapes this distinction by understanding the language of cinema as a metaphor—as the metaphor—for human dynamism.
His early short film Taris, a commissioned documentary on France’s leading swimmer, is a kinesthetic meditation that suggests the influence of fetishistic dissections of the human body by directors like Cocteau. The lens lingers on flapping legs and arms; Vigo cuts between slowed, intimate footage of the swimmer’s movement filling the frame and more journalistic overhead shots that show his technique against those of others training in the same pool. This somewhat painterly, modernist approach allows us to feel as the swimmer but not within the swimmer. Vigo would later inhabit the form of his characters without literally shooting from their perspective with even more counter-intuitive confidence. Michel Simon, as the old, boastfully eccentric boatman Père Jules in L’Atalante, wrestles with himself in a brief moment of physical comedy; Vigo steadies the camera and implies Père Jules’s strange egotism by letting Simon flop happily about the stoic frame.
Vigo’s humanism is therefore not as unabashed or template-offering as Jean Renoir’s, which often subverted castes in order to parse the depth of interpersonal compassion. It is perhaps the impish, communist younger brother of this sensibility, one that ignores hierarchies both social and dramatic to achieve a poetics of egalitarianism it knows is wishful thinking. This is made quite literal in both of Vigo’s “political” films, À Propos de Nice, an object-obsessed collage of inequality in the titular city, and the giddily trauma-conquering Zéro de Conduite—which Lindsay Anderson later expanded into the much more violent If…. Though narratively disinterested (it’s essentially a collection of cheeky boarding school sketches with an anarchic capper) and too caricature-y with its humor, Zéro de Conduite possesses a propulsiveness again made complex by compromise. Directly before the roughhouse climax, Vigo slows down footage of a march of nightgown-wearing, blunt instrument-wielding male students who emerge from a dreamy plume of falling pillow feathers, forestalling the success of their coup d’etat. The film’s final shot similarly watches the four young architects of the insurrection from behind as they climb to their school’s roof and wave to (presumably) throngs of ecstatic cohorts and a handful of confused adults: Their moment of glory is minimalistically iconicized. In moments like these it seems as though Vigo cannot bear to give his characters the full extent of what they so hotly pursue—perhaps for fear of destroying them in the process?
With L’Atalante, we find not only the culmination but the sublimation of this anxiety, as Vigo discovered that his characters could be rewarded in full only if they were first robbed of what they seek. After the procession of Jean and Juliette’s marriage—rendered in a series of slightly awkward cuts that seem to “trip” rather than “jump”—we learn that the couple has consummated their relationship after a very brief courtship. This of course mirrors, possibly intentionally, Vigo’s own desire to crystallize a new cinema despite his own youth and that of the art form. L’Atalante steadily gestates into film’s greatest and most idiosyncratic reflexive allegory, a series of simple but interlocking tropes and symbols that, much like those in Gertrude Stein’s poetry, indelibly and freely influence one another rather than simply appearing eloquently interchangeable.
We understand the ridiculousness of the titular barge where Jean and Juliette live as a figurative device, a concretizing of the barely functional and yet quite exhilarating nature of their electric affair. For the most part they can’t keep their hands off each other, much to the chagrin of their on-board extended “family”: Père Jules (literally, “Father” Jules) and an errand boy. When the camera caresses the boat, or caresses the shoreline from the boat’s perspective, it seems also to domesticate its purview; the not-quite-Dutch angles with which it observes Jean moving to and fro the hull fix him at the head of a ramshackle, atypical household from which he can likewise lord over the waterscape. And it’s not much of a stretch to read the brimming-with-potential lovey-doveyness of Jean and Juliette, and by extension their rarely anchored home of a boat, as a conceit for the hulking nascence of cinema-as-art, floating unstoppably if leisurely down the canal of the 20th century.
These respective entities’ inchoateness also means that we must compromise with moments of jejune gawkiness. When Jean finds Juliette and the avuncular Père Jules talking soberly in the latter’s cabin, he breaks several articles of the boatman’s junk in a blind, unnecessary rage; his love for her is so blisteringly new that it converts every whisper of seduction into a threat that needs squashing. L’Atalante itself is somewhat irascible, coming into its own with smart, uncanny spurts and then submerging into periodic confusion. The third act, for example, though inevitable, becomes a hyper-compressed lover’s quarrel resolved boringly by Père Jules’s worldliness and a half-clever leitmotif.
And yet the reunion between Jean and Juliette in the former’s cabin might be Vigo’s most accomplished exchange, a glorious compromise between the gestural and the symbolic. Before collapsing in an ignited, prurient heap on the hard, wood floor, they stare at one another in disbelief. When Juliette first moves toward her husband, he backs away—not brusquely, but with incredulous slightness. Contained in that minute turn of the torso is a lifetime of happiness-to-follow, a blink and a pinch and a gut check at the remarkable luck of having cultivated a relationship that can withstand not only estrangement, but the clichés of betrayal, despondency, and contrition as well. They have proven themselves worthy of their connubial bliss, and they need not apologize. They need not think. They need only melt into one another.
Studies of Jean Vigo's look and feel typically dote on his editing and blocking more so than his use of light—likely because ubiquitous un-restored prints of his films are awash with splotchy haze. Criterion's 1080p transfers of this quartet are, shockingly, uniformly clean, with Zéro de Conduite the only Eclipse line-worthy mastering—though even the antiquarian scratchiness there is hardly a nuisance. L'Atalante remains a hodgepodge of visual and sound quality, given the film's initial butchering and later reconstruction, but the relative clarity of the image especially allows the damp, crusty shadow of the titular boat's innards to seduce us. Further examination of beach and dream sequences fosters a crucial discovery: That Vigo uses light and shadow not to split images with chiaroscuro but to suggest their unified, if occasionally mottled, essence. His cinematography illuminates his emotional topography.
The Complete Jean Vigo features an amicable junk drawer of supplements, from Michel Gondry's inane but mercifully brief animated tribute, to a conversation between Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut where the wrong director does the talking, to a lengthy historical-biographical account of L'Atalante's production. Most of these, along with the audio commentaries by Vigo scholar Michael Temple, provide invaluable historical context, particularly in terms of what camera techniques Vigo pioneered and experimented with, but ultimately don't parse the human significance of Vigo's art with much gusto. Still, there's no doubting that this is a completist guide, and the booklet's essays fill in much of the aesthetic gaps left behind by the audio-visual material's prosaic approach. Michael Almereyda's career and life overview is a particularly incisive look at Vigo's incalculable impact both on his contemporaries and his followers.
Criterion's loving Blu-ray omnibus of one of cinema's most celebrated martyrs provides three hours of poetic catharsis at 1080 progressively scanned lines of resolution.