All Four Films Made by a Young French Genius
All the films ever made by Jean Vigo (1905-1934) can be watched in less than three hours, and that will leave you time to take a 15-minute break along the way. And when Vigo died from complications of tuberculosis at age 29, he had won no prize, received little critical acclaim and was virtually unknown to the general public. Yet, through his peculiar form of stylized realism imbued with a poetic sensibility, he made a major, enduring impact on world cinema. Along with Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion) and Marcel Carné (Children of Paradise), Vigo is considered one of the founders of the movement known as poetic realism.
Now Criterion Collection has released a two-disc DVD set that contains the only four films ever made by Vigo, each of which can optionally be watched while listening to the audio commentary of Dr. Michael Temple, author of a book on Vigo and a reader in Film and Media, in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. The films are packaged with nearly three hours of video bonus materials and an informative 44-page booklet.
Contents of Disc One
Disc One contains all four of Vigo's films, along with the scholarly audio commentaries.
Vigo's only feature-length movie was the 87-minute L'Atalante (1934), a masterpiece that often appears on lists of the greatest films of all time. It's a charming little love story about newlyweds living on a river barge named L'Atalante with an uncouth old first mate, a boy and a bunch of cats. I've written at length about this movie elsewhere on this site.
The other critically acclaimed film made by Vigo was the 44-minute "Zéro de conduite" (1933), "Zero for Conduct" in English. It's about four boys fomenting a rebellion at their repressive boarding school, and it's unquestionably one of the most influential movies about childhood. The film made the French educational system look so bad that the authorities banned it for about 12 years.
While L'Atalante and "Zéro de conduite" are fiction films, Vigo's other two movies are documentaries. The 23-minute "À propos de Nice" (1930) — the title of which might be rendered as "On the Subject of Nice" — is a fascinating, offbeat silent documentary about the largest city on the French Riviera. Among other things, it shows well-healed tourists promenading, working-class city residents, Mardi Gras revelers and statues in the cemetery. There are no intertitles, and the soundtrack consists of a solo accordion.
Vigo's fourth film — a minor work which is only mildly interesting — is the 10-minute talkie "Taris" (1931), in which world-class swimmer Jean Taris demonstrates aspects of competitive swimming.
Contents of Disc Two
The best of the supplementary materials is "Truffaut and Rohmer on L'Atalante," an 18-minute 1968 TV interview of François Truffaut by Eric Rohmer, and the conversation between the two French New Wave filmmakers is brilliant. Rohmer notes that there's some similarity in story between L'Atalante and Murnau's Sunrise, but Truffaut points out major stylistic differences. But both men agree that Michel Simon's performance as the uncouth first mate in L'Atalante was similar to one he gave earlier in Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning.
Another worthwhile bonus material is "Les Voyages de L'Atalante," a 40-minute documentary in which film historian and restorer Bernard Eisenschitz tells about the versions of Vigo's masterpiece. In 1934 the distributor inserted a pop song in nine places, and theater owners cut scenes they thought were pointless or too erotic. Eisenschitz' documentary also contains interesting rushes and deleted scenes.
The longest extra is the 98-minute 1964 TV broadcast of Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Times). Airing 30 years after Vigo's death, the program was apparently intended to be a memorial to one of the most beloved figures in the French cinema world, and it consists mainly of people Vigo worked with taking a fond look back, intercut with clips from his films.
The other supplementary materials are a 45-second animated tribute to Vigo by Michel Gondry and a 20-minute 2001 interview of Otar Iosseliani, in which the Georgian-French filmmaker gives an insightful analysis of L'Atalante, which he first saw in Moscow.
The 44-Page Booklet
Packaged with the two-disc DVD set is a booklet that contains four essays, one on Jean Vigo, plus one each on his three major films: "À propos de Nice," "Zéro de conduite" and L'Atalante. All four essays are worth reading, but the one giving the best introductory overview of the man and his work is titled "Jean Vigo" and is written by Michael Almereyda, director of Hamlet (2000), a lively adaptation of Shakespeare's classic. (In Almereyda's movie, Denmark is a modern-day corporation rather than a medieval kingdom as in the Bard's play.) In his essay, Almereyda reminds readers that Vigo's "Zéro de conduite" was an obvious influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Also, he mentions that Boris Kaufman, Vigo's cinematographer for all three of his major films, went on to become director of photography for a number of celebrated American movies and won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for On the Waterfront.
DVD Release Date: August 30, 2011
Number of DVDs: 2
Feature Content: 4 Films by Jean Vigo (Total Runtime = 2 hr. 44 min.)
Supplementary Materials: 5 Video Extras (Total Runtime = 2 hr. 57 min.)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated