The Patron Saint of Indie Film-Making

1 10 2009
Michel Simon in 'L'Atalante'

Michel Simon in 'L'Atalante'

Tuberculosis is, I think we could all agree, a bit of a bugger. Not content with inflicting its sufferings on the rank-and-file of humanity, the disease has, over the years, sought out and killed some of the greatest names in world literature. D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka; all died well before their natural time, leaving us to speculate on what treasures or disappointments we might have been left with had they lived longer.  

Tuberculosis gave the world of cinema one of its first martyrs too when, on 5th October 1934, Jean Vigo died at the age of 29. The director left only four films behind, of which only one is a feature. Nevertheless, 75 years after his death, Vigo’s reputation continues to loom large in world cinema. His feature, L’Atalante, frequently crops up in lists of the top ten films of all time, while the director himself, who had to fight against almost impossible odds to realise his artistic vision, has become something of a patron saint for indie film-makers everywhere.

Vigo was born in Paris, the son of an anarchist agitator who was murdered in prison when the boy was 12. A sickly child, he spent much of his early life in boarding schools and sanatoriums. In 1930, at the age of 25, Vigo’s father-in-law leant him the money to buy a film camera. With his cinematographer Boris Kaufman, he made two guerrilla-style documentaries over the next two years. The first, Apropos de Nice, is a satire disguised as a travelogue. Taking their camera onto the streets of Nice (sometimes hidden in a pram), Kaufman and Vigo filmed the rich and the beautiful sunning themselves on the seafront and the poor and desperate knuckling down to a hard day’s work in the back streets. For their next film Taris they took as a subject French Olympic swimming hopeful Jean Taris, and explored new ways of shooting underwater.

In 1933 Vigo revisited his unhappy schooldays with Zéro de Conduite, the tale of an uprising in a repressive boarding school. The film was short (42 minutes), filled with unforgettable images and considered so dangerous by the French authorities that it was banned until after the Second World War. Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If… is almost a re-make, and a tribute to the original.  

'Zéro de Conduite'

'Zéro de Conduite'

In 1934, and in failing health, the director embarked on his last and most important piece of work, L’Atalante. The feature-length script was assigned to Vigo by the film studio Gaumont. On paper, the story is unremarkable: the skipper of a barge marries a village girl; they live together on the barge with his two-man crew; they argue; she is tempted by the bright lights of Paris and runs away; they miss each other and are eventually re-united.

Vigo’s great achievement was to take this simple material and turn it into something profound and poetic. For a start, the relationship between the skipper and his new wife is a million miles away from most on-screen relationships of the Thirties. The couple bicker and canoodle, whispering secrets to one another one moment and harbouring brooding resentments the next. It’s a passionate, uncertain relationship: the kind that a young married couple would have had in those days of quick, early marriages.  Above all it feels real, uncomplicated by the needs of the storyteller to draw any easy conclusions from the couple’s behaviour.

This naturalism extends to the other characters too. Père Jules, played by character actor Michel Simon, is a tattooed, accordion-playing sea dog who lives in a cluttered cabin on the barge. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Jules escorts the skipper’s young wife around his cabin, showing her the collection of objects that he has amassed on his trips around the world. At one stage she opens a cupboard door only to find the severed hands of one of Jules’ old comrades preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. The old sailor shows her his tattoos. He plays the accordion for her. He puts a lit cigarette in his belly button and clowns around. The scene feels almost improvised, but it tells us much more about the bride and the old man than dozens of pages of carefully-scripted dialogue ever could.

Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté in 'L'Atalante'

Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté in 'L'Atalante'

And then there are the moments of pure cinematic poetry: the skipper diving into the water to search for the image of his lost love; the bride shivering on the pavement as she eyes the window display in a Paris department store; the separated lovers turning fitfully in their sleep in separate beds. It’s hard to imagine that even as Vigo shot these images he probably knew he was dying.

L’Atalante did not suffer a happy fate. The director lived just long enough to see his film re-cut by the studio and rebranded as a jaunty musical named Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge). Songs were added and much of Vigo’s original material was discarded. For any artist, let alone one on his last legs, it would have been a crushing blow. 

Thankfully, the legend of L’Atalante lived on, and there have been several attempts over the years to restore the director’s cut. The version that we have now, while not perfect, is at least close to the film that Vigo intended to make, allowing his vision and artistry to shine through.  

So, on 5th October, I hope I will not be alone in raising a glass to Jean Vigo. Every film-maker today who finds him or herself shooting on the hoof or trying to cobble together a crew for a micro-budget short is, in some way, following in Vigo’s venerable footsteps. Had he lived longer or been born in the digital age, who knows what heights he may have reached? As it is, we have L’Atalante, which remains a great, moving and inspirational piece of work and a reminder that, whatever else may happen, great cinema endures.

Next week, Michael Winner.




3 responses

3 10 2009

Hey thanks – what a great post. Thanks for coming and telling me about it.

I hadn’t realised that about the final cut of the film – it’s awful.

And in the annals of TB & literature, don’t forget Keats – who died in his twenties thinking he had failed.

4 10 2009
Tony D'Ambra

Great post Kieron and a fitting tribute! Good luck with the new blog.

4 10 2009

Hi there, I’m linking to this in the morning. And of course with some chagrin I realise I DID know the story about the final edit, as I realised when looking at the film about the restoration – which I’ve put on my blog – it’s just that people tell me things and it all goes out the other ear. Ergh. So thanks again for the heads-up.

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