This 23-minute documentary puts the inhabitants of Nice, France on their natural stage as they work, play and live. À propos de Nice is a fine portrait of the city, the camera (operated by Boris Kaufman, who would later work with Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet) capturing views of Nice from hundreds of feet above to the cracks in the sidewalk.
Director Jean Vigo observes workers setting up umbrellas at the café and painting figures for the city’s carnivals. We see the residents sailing boats, playing tennis and mastering bocce. Still, À propos de Nice is far from a stale travelogue. It’s at times an amusing work that photographs the wealthy sleeping their lives away and statues with a wonderful sense of humor about the city folk.
As parts of the film are staged and clever editing creates most of the laughs, the film is a perfect introduction to the work of Vigo, a director who, in his short career, would play by few rules--and create some of his own.
This commissioned, nine-minute short on French swimmer and record holder Jean Taris (1909-1977) puts the camera poolside--and deeper--to show the Olympic medalist’s technique.
Vigo shuns expectation in Taris just as he did with À propos de Nice. Here, he takes leaps by reversing the film, employing a narrator as announcer and placing the camera inside the pool to display every move that Tardis makes. Taris did not have to be a conventional sports doc, and so it wasn’t.
It’s an innovative work, and Boris Kaufman’s photography has no doubt been at least a minor influence on how the modern Olympic Games’ swimming events are shot and televised.
Zéro de Conduite (1933)
Zero for Conduct takes place in a French boarding school where anyone over the age of 12 is an oppressive monster.
“We’re suffocating in here,” one of the boys says. And so really the headmaster and the teachers deserve whatever’s coming to them. That’s what children believe, and that’s also what Jean Vigo felt.
“Long live rebellion!” one of the other boys declares as he and his classmates march on, raising hell in their sleeping quarters with pillow-tossing and bed-hopping. The next morning, they tie a superior in his bed and silently walk off. That afternoon, the students take the roof, hurling cans and books at the faculty.
That is all it took for Zero for Conduct to be banned in France for 15 years, a note that is one of the alluring aspects to viewers,. Notable fans include François Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson, whose most iconic works (The 400 Blows and If…, respectively) were greatly influenced by Zero for Conduct, which stands as the surreal grandfather of the student vs. establishment subgenre.
L’Atalante is Jean Vigo’s most accessible and praised film, showing up on numerous best-of lists and serving as an inspiration to droves of directors, from Rohmer and Truffaut to Jarmusch and Kaurismäki.
It tells of the romance and honeymoon of a young village girl named Juliette (Dita Parlo) and the captain of a barge Jean (Jean Dasté). Spending the rest of her life by ports and filth isn’t exactly what Juliette’s parents had in mind for her. But it’s her dream--pushed mostly by flirtatious peddler--to see Paris, and a man with a boat is about the best way for her to do it.
It is a simple, human story of how people, even if in love, have their ways. That’s why Jean only does his laundry once a year. And why Juliette gets off the boat to explore Paris when she’s instructed not to. It’s also why we can’t blame Juliette for being so quickly swept away by the glamour of the city, and why we can’t blame Jean either for being angry when he finds his missus has left.
L’Atalante is not entirely conventional, despite what the plot suggests. It has a wealth of Vigo touches, like having Boris Kaufman on as cinematographer to accomplish the dreamlike atmosphere. The clever editing in Vigo’s previous efforts, notably À propos de Nice, is also called to mind in a moment that is one of the most terrific gags in cinema history. Shipmate Jules (Michel Simon) polishes a record and with each revolution comes music, as if his finger is a needle and the air speakers. In a great cutaway shot, it’s revealed that the cabin boy has been toying with Jules, playing his accordion to each touch of the vinyl.
There were/are many versions of L’Atalante. The film buff will want to track down all of them. But the lover and dreamer in all must only see this 87-minute version (presented “as true as possible to the original”) to fully experience the beauty that is L'Atalante.
A Tribute by Michel Gondry (0:45): This animated short directed by Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is dedicated to the works of Jean Vigo.
Cinéastes de notre temps (1:38:15): This 1964 episode of the French television program (translated Filmmakers of Our Times) offers a comprehensive look at the late Jean Vigo, highlighting his memorable films, his childhood, the last days of his life, and much, much more. The highlight of the disc, this feature-length documentary uses interviews and film clips to paint a complete portrait of the artist.
Truffaut and Rohmer on L’Atalante (18:16): In this conversation, broadcast on television in 1968, directors and French New Wave pioneers François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer discuss L’Atalante and its influence.
Les Voyage de “L’Atalante” (40:03): In this 2001 documentary, film historian and restorer Bernard Eisenschitz provides a detailed history of the various versions of L’Atalante, released between 1934 and 1990.
Otar Iosseliani on Vigo (19:57): Here, filmmaker Iosseliani (Farewell, Home Sweet Home) shares his thoughts on the director, whose L’Atalante he first saw while studying at Moscow Film School.
There is also an Alternate Edit of À propos de Nice that runs about two minutes shorter than the released version. That said, Vigo himself noted that it was “a little long and repetitive in places.”
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 44-page booklet featuring an essay titled “Jean Vigo” by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, one titled “À propos de Jean and Boris” by author Robert Polito, one titled “Rude Freedom” by writer and video maker B. Kite, and another titled “Canal Music” by author Luc Sante.