How many great movies does a filmmaker have to make to be considered one of the masters of the medium? Charles Laughton managed to pull it off with only one, Night of the Hunter, and French director Jean Vigo forever earned a place in film history with four films that can be viewed back-to-back in less than three hours. The Criterion Collection paid tribute to Laughton’s gifts with a definitive Blu-ray of Night of the Hunter in November last year, and now the same deluxe treatment has been given to Vigo with a complete set of his works. Vigo’s output was tragically cut short when he died of tuberculosis at age 29, but in his brief career, he left behind a legacy that made him a hero to Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and countless other filmmakers.
The first film in the collection is also the first collaboration between Vigo and his friend Boris Kaufman, ASC, who would go on to photograph or co-photograph the two movies for which the director is most revered (not to mention classics by directors such as Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet). À propos de Nice is a 23-minute “city symphony” film in the style of other movies of the era, such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera, which happened to be directed by Kaufman brother Dziga Vertov (aka Denis Kaufman). The collaboration between Vigo and Kaufman on this charming slice of urban life was an unusually close one: the two men co-directed and co-edited the film, with Vigo taking on screenwriting duties and Kaufman serving as director of photography.
Vigo’s second film, the nine-minute Taris (1931) was a commissioned work on which he was hired to film swimming champion Jean Taris. Though the project did not originate with Vigo, he and cinematographers G. Lafont and Lucas Procédé seized the opportunity to experiment with techniques such as slow and reverse motion, double exposures and underwater photography, techniques which Vigo would utilize to even greater effect in subsequent films. Taris represents the essence of Vigo’s sensibility in its most distilled form, combining documentary reality and lyrical expressionism to create a new kind of truth on celluloid — a style in which Vigo’s supremacy would remain unchallenged until Martin Scorsese took the juxtaposition to even further extremes decades later in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
After Taris come the two classics for which Vigo is justly celebrated. The first, Zéro de conduite, is a 44-minute portrait of a revolt at a boarding school. Working once again with Kaufman, Vigo reflects the spontaneity and impulsiveness of the students in a style that shows blatant disregard for many of cinema’s rules — at times shots do not match and subplots fail to pay off, which led some critics to dismiss the film at its initial screenings (after which it was banned entirely by French censors who objected to its antiestablishment message). Yet on repeat viewings, the film reveals a rather rigorous structure underneath the chaos, and it becomes clear that Vigo and Kaufman were merely trying to match their form to the anarchistic tendencies of their characters, establishing a template for youth films ranging from The 400 Blows to Rock and Roll High School.
Vigo’s next and final film, and his only feature, is one of the enduring masterpieces of world cinema. The story of L’Atalante is fairly simple: the captain of a barge takes his young bride on board as he embarks on a job; she has a difficult time adjusting to life on the boat, and their new marriage starts to fall apart until it is rescued with the help of one of the captain’s subordinates. Vigo, who took the job as an assignment rather than originating it himself, did not particularly care for the premise, but he saw it as an opportunity to create another of his pseudo-documentaries, this one on barge life and the working class. Indeed, Vigo and Kaufman, along with additional cinematographers Louis Berger and Jean-Paul Alphen, paint a portrait of life on the canals that is extraordinarily realistic and filled with precise details. Yet this is also Vigo’s most unabashedly romantic film, with sublime images of its lovers that are almost supernatural in their otherworldly glow and abstraction.
Ironically, Kaufman’s evocative style grew out of his responses to the natural elements at hand; when unexpected weather conditions plagued the set, he incorporated them rather than allowing circumstances to delay or compromise the production. When fog rolled in, the cinematographer added to its density with smoke; when it rained, he accentuated the rain with light. The result of Kaufman’s approach is a blend of poetic stylization and location shooting that had a major impact on the French New Wave — if Zéro de conduite is the forerunner to The 400 Blows, then L’Atalante is the father to Jules and Jim, Breathless and Contempt.
L’Atalante was barely seen in its original form since, after poorly received 1934 screenings, its various distributors and exhibitors made arbitrary cuts and music replacements. It was finally restored to something resembling its original length in 2001, and that restoration has come to be regarded as the definitive version of L’Atalante. Unfortunately, the carelessness with which this and Vigo’s other films have been treated over the years is obvious; although Criterion has done its usual fine job when it comes to contrast and clarity, creating easily the best video transfers of these films to date, the source material is often plagued by scratches and other flaws and inconsistencies. Yet even though the movies have been made imperfect by the ravages of time and indifference, Kaufman’s luminous photography remains awe inspiring, and the Blu-ray is clearly the best way to study his work.
The Blu-ray is also a spectacular learning tool, thanks to a collection of extra features that are impressive, even by Criterion’s exemplary standards. All four films feature commentaries by Vigo scholar Michael Temple, who places the movies in the context of Vigo’s career and the history of French cinema. In addition to the commentary tracks, the disc contains a number of supplements, starting with a brief (45 seconds) but delightful animated tribute to Vigo by director Michel Gondry. This is followed by a 98-minute episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps, which supplies an excellent overview of Vigo’s career by way of interviews with many of his collaborators. A 1968 television program featuring Truffaut and Eric Rohmer offers a different perspective, that of Vigo’s disciples; over the course of an enlightening 18-minute conversation, the two New Wave directors discuss Vigo’s influence on their work and on cinema as a whole. Yet another filmmaker, Georgian-French director Otar Iosseliani, contributes a 20-minute interview in which he reflects on the appeal and importance of L’Atalante.
The disc’s best extra is the 40-minute documentary Les voyages de “L’Atalante,” in which film historian Bernard Eisenschitz takes the viewer through the film’s different edits and permutations. This is far more than a mere cataloguing of cuts, however: the documentary also includes numerous outtakes and rushes that provide a detailed look at Vigo’s methods, as well as close visual analysis of key shots and scenes. Eisenschitz also incorporates quotes from Kaufman that beautifully elucidate his working methods on the film, and Eisenschitz also gives a fascinating account of the film’s shifting reception and reputation over the course of 60 years. This essential documentary is the closest a viewer can get to being on set with Vigo and Kaufman during the creation of their magnum opus; it and the other supplements are musts for Vigo’s many disciples, as well as those who have yet to discover his genius.