Reality, desire and rebellion. The lesson of the eternal Jean Vigo

Reality, desire and rebellion. The lesson of the eternal Jean Vigo

«Completely unrelated to mercantilism and commercial conditioning, Vigo's working method expresses an innocence and purity towards the film work and its economic supply chain, which seems to ideally anticipate alternative forms of prolific production and distribution of cinema in our contemporary world. , and based on participatory financing electronic platforms such as crowdfunding »Giacomo Ravesi

«Jean Vigo is the author who has been able to embody, interpret and express like few others a conception of cinema in which to bring together the passionate element, political attention, the dimension of the dream with an eternal amateur gaze, transforming one's cinema in a constant invention, in a continuous phase of beginning ». Denis Brotto

Although Jean Vigo has managed to complete only four films made over the course of a few years, his work occupies a fundamental role within French cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. It is in this period that directors such as Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Abel Gance and Marcel L'Herbier work on film specificity compared to other arts and to introduce Vigo to cinema, as Giacomo Ravesi1 recalls and Germaine Dulac (pseudonym of Germaine Saisset-Schneider) , one of the first French avant-garde directors and theorists. Even the figure of Dziga Vertov influences Vigo in his purpose of applying the experimental research of the 1920s in a social key.

In addition to occupying an important role in the French cinematography of his time, Vigo's works, as shown by Denis Brotto2's study, will prove capable of influencing future "new waves" which, starting in the 1950s, will shake European cinema.

Jean Vigo's short life was not easy. As a child he found himself forced to live in boarding school after being dismissed from the family when his father, Eugène Bonaventure de Vigo, known under the pseudonym of Miguel Almereyda - collaborator and founder of anarchist newspapers such as "Le Libertarie", "La Guerre Sociale" and "Le Bonnet Rouge" - was imprisoned in prison, where he died in unclear circumstances, during the First World War, on charges of being a collaborator of Germany. The accusation of collaborating with the enemy has been frequently used by all countries against "internal enemies" guilty, in reality, most of the time, of antimilitarism.

Brotto writes of him: "Vigo is not only an author of images, icons, but he himself represents the figure of the author who has become an icon. It is he, with his effigy, who reveals the conception of a cinema of the possible, of a cinema eager to show its most courageous and lyrical face, of a cinema ready to free itself from the productive weights, to let the forms of desire transpire and of fantasy "(p. 27). For the French "it is from the visible data, from its propensity to interrogate the imaginary, the off-screen, the invisible, that a form of circular motion is established between what falls within the sphere of knowledge and the unconscious itself" (p. 21).

Referring to the overall intent of Vigo's work, says Giacomo Ravesi, "it is a so-called avant-garde cinema, which stands in opposition to the hegemonic narrative, representative and industrial forms. It is the utopia of an alternative cinema, since it is purified from the economic logic of the market and from the discursive practices of the other arts, in the hypothesis of realizing the specificities of cinema as an autonomous art "(p. 24). Always Ravesi stresses how in France avant-garde cinema collects the legacy of the historical Avant-garde; in fact it is largely a cinema of poets, painters, artists and photographers who intend to apply their aesthetic research to the cinematographic medium.

In the following decade, the French cinema scene changed significantly, so much so that the season of experiments seems to have ended: "avant-garde cinema", continues Ravesi, "burdened by the world economic crisis and deprived of its size as an alternative market form, is reabsorbed in a new ideological and aesthetic structure linked to the political, social and cultural transformation of the nation. The intensification of internal contradictions, the general collapse of prices, the rise in unemployment and collective malaise, together with the advance of totalitarianisms in different European states, lead artists, directors and intellectuals to unite in the name of democracy and to rediscover a ' urgency of social denunciation that flows into the experience of the Popular Front, formed in July 1934 by socialists, communists and democrats "(pp. 29-30).

The French cinema of the thirties, in line with the tradition of the nineteenth-century naturalist novel, is crossed by social stories that see the popular classes, the marginalized and the outlaws as protagonists. The cinema of Vigo, while remaining essentially "other" than all this, is however well rooted in this climate of interrelation between cinema and society. Guido Oldrini writes in this regard that Vigo, in his films, "increasingly materializes his anarchist virulence and intemperances in a historical-social direction, to the point of interpreting them as an organic moment of the conception of the democratic struggle from below" .3

In short, the French director belongs to that heterogeneous generation of authors destined to mark the history of national cinematography which includes among its ranks the likes of: René Clair, Jean Epstein, Marcel L'Herbier, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Claude Autant- Lara, Jean Grémillon, Julien Duvivier, Henri Decoin and Marcel Carné.

At the turn of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Vigo made À propos de Nice (About Nice, 1930), his first cinematographic work in which he mixed documentary film and linguistic experimentation on the furrow of "urban symphonies", cinematographic works particularly popular in the second half of the 1920s, devoted to giving an image to the daily life of large metropolises, as in the case of Berlin - Die Sinfonie der Groβstadt (Berlin - Symphony of a large city, 1927) by Walter Ruttmann.

The second work by the French author, Taris ou La natation (Taris or of swimming, 1931), is a short documentary on the French swimmer Jean Taris. Also in this case Vigo does not fail to try various linguistic experiments: overlays, inversions, slow motion, underwater shots etc.

Then it was the turn of Zéro de conduite (Zero in conduct, 1933), a fiction medium-length film with evident autobiographical references. Giacomo Ravesi writes in this regard: «The film inaugurates a personal representation of childhood at the cinema, interpreted through the deforming lens of the grotesque and memorial lyricism, which returns a participatory vision of the infantile universe as a state of the human condition free and far from any conditioning. Irreducibly extraneous to the world of adults, childhood is portrayed in its occult and unknown aspects, respecting its most authentic character in a stubborn and disruptive stylistic framework, suspended between joyful and moving revolt, which will become a prototype also for the next cinema » . (p. 22). Zéro de conduite was painstakingly completed in 1933 after a thousand production difficulties but remained stubbornly blocked by censorship until 1945.

Despite the difficulties encountered in Zéro de conduite, the director decides to try his hand at making his first and only fiction feature film, destined to leave an indelible trace in the history of cinema: The Atalante (Id., 1934). The film was born from a subject by Robert de Guichen signed under the pseudonym Jean Guinée, reworked by Vigo which takes away the moralistic intentions present.

The synopsis of the film is soon said. Jean, driver of the Atalante barge along the canals of Northern France, marries Juliette, a young woman of peasant origin who thus becomes part of the crew composed, as well as by Jean, by an old sailor, Père Jules, and by a young man hub. Life on board for the young woman soon turns out to be boring and the cramped spaces do not leave the married couple great opportunities for intimacy. During a stop in Paris, the woman is fascinated by the city, arousing Jean's jealousy, which ends up beating a street vendor who invites his wife to dance.

The relationships within the couple became stormy so much that Juliette decided to flee the boat and autonomously reach the sprawling city and then realized, on the return trip, that her husband left and abandoned her. Suddenly the metropolis is revealed to Juliette in its less sparkling sides made up of rows of unemployed and criminal acts. The distance from his beloved reduces Jean to despair and, remembering that Juliette had told him about the possibility of seeing his loved one underwater, he decides to dive into the Seine where he can see his wife in a wedding dress. It will be up to Père Jules to look for and recover the young woman and then bring her back on board where the two spouses reunite.

Ravesi, in analyzing the narrative modality of the film, points out how this proceeds with self-sufficient sequences in which situations appear autonomous and self-concluded in the unity of space, time and action. The spaces present themselves as narrative containers that "outline a substantially static and involuted dramatic line that cyclically returns to itself. The events take on an episodic character, leaving numerous gray areas and poorly motivated developments [...] Considering Juliette as the main character, the overall dramaturgical evolution is reduced to a Deprivation-Removal-Return scheme "(p. 39).

The film unfolds along a circular path determined by the dialectical opposition between the terrestrial universe and the aquatic universe. The terrestrial sphere is represented by the metropolis, "the place of loss of the subject in the multitude and anonymity, in the exaltation of the antinomies and the imbalances between the individual and society" (p. 40), while the aquatic sphere is represented by the world of the boat, "a happy island, made of spontaneous and natural relationships, where the suggestions and magnetisms of bourgeois society and the outside world come only as fetishes and imaginary projections" (p. 40).

About the different characters, Ravesi identifies the dramaturgical engine of Vigo's work in the psychological and behavioral path of Juliette, a character who lives a difficult balance between childhood and adulthood, therefore between two different times / ways of living life. Jean, on the other hand, seems to be experiencing the schizophrenia of the double role of captain / spouse, split between pleasure / duty, desire / obligation, love / work. At the end of the film Jean loses her rigidities and manages, thanks to her reunion with her beloved, to accept the extraordinary and the unusual.

In addition to the characters of Père Jules, the old sailor, and the young hub, mainly a passive spectator of the events, the essay also focuses on the figure of the Parisian peddler beaten by Jean in jealousy, indicating in it the expression of the dialectical opposition to the relationships built on the boat of which this character proposes an alternative. "The catalyst of the narrative reversal of the film, the peddler outlines a super-active figure who is constantly on the move, with sociable and charming ways and with bizarre and transforming behaviors. Magical character and literally from nowhere (his appearance is sudden, from behind a hill riding a bike), the street vendor is a showman, rather than a simple merchant: in fact, he knows how to sing, dance, row, do tricks and acrobatics. It is in him that Vigo conveys those fantasies and suggestions related to the circus and the illusionism of the traveling show that characterize all his work "(p. 44).

Ravesi also underlines how, despite being structured by a succession of self-sufficient sequences, the film is crossed by a dynamic tension deriving "from the relationships of seduction and physical repulsion, loss and discovery, which connect the various characters" (p. 45). Think of how the love relationship between the two spouses continually manifests itself during the film as a celebration of the attraction that binds / divides the two bodies and their respective drives.

Referring to the studies of Mario Verdone4 and Patrice Rollet and Stéphane du Mesnildot5, Giacomo Ravesi writes that the "" suggestion of the flesh "and" the truth of the skin "develop in the film an" erotic contact "based on" conducting bodies "that" they materialize desire by leading from one body to another the electricity of the drive, the warmth of love, the deaf light of cinema ”» (p. 48).

"In the film, the bodies live on the other hand of an ostentatious nakedness that accentuates their erotic and sensual connotation: the naked torsos of Jean, the slip of Juliette, the tattooed body of Pere Jules. Even the marks on the skin (cuts, scratches, tattoos, hand lines) move a fetishistic and sadistic seduction practice based on the relevance of anatomical details and the dismemberment of bodies through the scale of the planes (the details of the hands, the details of the objects , Juliette's first floors) and the processes of setting up the picture by duplicating the mirrors and doors (père Jules' cabin, the reflections of the shop windows) "(p. 47).

In Ravesi's essay, the relationships between the bodies of different characters and the relationships between bodies and spaces are analyzed, therefore the narrow, promiscuous and oppressive spaces of the boat and the open, unlimited and dispersive spaces of the exteriors are compared. "The artificiality and inhumanity of the automatons and mannequins of the shop windows continue in the indifference and anonymity of the urban crowd, forced into a desolate and abstract port and industrial landscape. A dehumanizing dialectic is established between character and environment, expressed by long and fixed fields in which the aseptic and geometric rigor of the scaffolding that absorb the human figure dominates, until it disappears "(pp. 50-51).

The photographic choices made by Vigo accentuate the expressionist character of the environment. "The Paris of the film defines an architectural monstrosity (the infrastructure of the port yards), social (the rows of unemployed in front of the port gates) and moral (the lynching of the thief who robbed Juliette, by a ravenous crowd who claims a unjust need for justice), totally alien to the organic, unitary and community vision with which the image of the city is characterized in French cinema of the 1930s "(p. 52).

A part of the essay is dedicated to the "water motif" as a characterizing element of the Atalante. Regarding the role played by water in French films of the time, the reflections of scholars such as Gilles Deleuze, 6 Dominique Païni7 and Antonio Costa are reviewed.

Atalante is a film focused on the popular and proletarian world and according to Ravesi, which takes up the analysis of Émile Breton9 "the social analysis of the film is dialectical in nature, focused on the representation of a nation oppressed by the economic crisis and unprepared for one sudden industrial development, since it is still linked to a rural culture and a peasant economy. The conflict between innovation and tradition configures the symbolic nature of the boat itself, through the double conformation of a separate cell inserted in social dynamics. The Atalante constitutes an autonomous and self-sufficient nucleus in itself, an alternative to ordinary lifestyles, which is continuously nourished by suggestions coming from outside "(p. 58).

As for the stylistic and iconographic motifs that characterize the film, Ravesi focuses on the scene in which Jean with her eyes open underwater looks into the car in search of Juliette. In this scene, the scholar identifies the symbol of the desire to go "to the bottom of the images to find a state of" clairvoyance "and an avant-garde of the gaze. Vigo seems to oppose the iconophilia of seeing everything everywhere and in any case [...] Vigo brings cinema back to its elementary nature and optical functionality of lens through which to observe the world, amplifying and exasperating its contours and nuances […] aquarium shape as a metaphor of the cinema screen, the shot takes on a dual representative function: constricting limit and transparent threshold. The looks in the car - that of Jean in the underwater sequence and those of the spouses separated during the sleepless night - flaunt the paradox of a shot conceived as the terminal edge of the vision (the characters who seem to lean over, look towards us spectators) and portal d access to new states of perception (the lyrical and dreamlike character of underwater apparitions). In the same way, the widespread use of the plongée framing extends the claustrophobic character of the interior of the boat at the level of the painting and underlines the subjective dimension of the shot, linked to a compositional submission of the space that is controlled by one. distant view "(pp. 64-65).

Ravesi also underlines how the landscape exerts iconographic pressure towards the protagonists through medium and long fields, mostly in depth of field, in order to support a diagonal perspective duplicating the strength and scale relationships between characters and background. In the interior, the director uses close-up shots made with a hand-held and moving camera. In the manner of the Soviet avant-garde cinema, Vigo frequently resorts to low-angle angles that show the actors in the act of advancing diagonally crossing the shot from the long shot to the detail, almost as if to suggest a "desire for contact" of the camera with the bodies.

Although Vigo's production is so small, numerous writings have been written about him and his cinema. Among the scholars and film critics who have dealt with it, Brotto remembers: Siegfried Kracauer, Edgar Morin, Lotte Eisner, Henri Agel, Henri Langlois, Jean Gili, Gilles Deleuze, Dudley Andrew, Michael Temple, Maurizio Grande, Glauco Viazzi, Corrado Terzi , Bruno Voglino and Fernaldo Di Giammatteo. Various directors have also been able to write about Vigo's work: John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Henri Storck, Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Painlevé, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Manoel de Oliveira, Marco Bellocchio, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrej Tarkovskij and Aleksandr Sokurov. More or less explicit references and references to the work of the French director are visible, says Brotto, in works by: Lindsay Anderson, François Truffaut, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Manoel de Oliveira, Julien Temple, Jean-Charles Tacchella , Leos Carax, Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry and Jem Cohen.

Brotto, in his volume, also containing a precious DVD video containing the four works of Vigo, in addition to examining the films of the French author, investigates the exchange relationship that the director's production had with the history of cinema so much of his time , as much as that following the director's disappearance.

An important first moment for Vigo's cinema, after his death, was at the end of the 1940s when, following the presentation at the 1949 Festival du film maudit in Biarritz by Zéro de conduite and L'Atalante, André Bazin also realizes the innovative and nonconformist scope of the director's work. The Atalante is also screened at the 1950 Antibes Film Festival in Antibes with great success.

In 1953 the magazine "Positif" dedicates a monographic issue to the author and in 1957 Sales Gómes publishes a monograph dedicated to Vigo. Also during the 1950s, the importance of the French author was perfectly captured by the Nouvelle vague. «That convergence between the imaginative and concrete element that Vigo makes its own by Georges Méliès, Émile Cohl, Ferdinand Zecca, becomes for François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, albeit with modalities and forms of different interests, a permanent point of reference, an aesthetic principle to constantly refer to "(p. 194).

Even the most effervescent British cinema environment - gravitating around the magazines "Sequence" and "Sight and Sound" linked to English Free Cinema - includes the innovative scope of Vigo's work. As part of the initiatives of the nascent Free Cinema, the London's National Film Theater presents some short films that resume Vigo's lesson. In particular, the film O Dreamland (1956) by Lindsay Anderson, set in a Margate fairground, clearly evokes the debut work of the French À propos de Nice , on the Channel. «As for the Nice Carnival, here too the attractions of the amusement park are shown as an example of bad taste, torture inflicted by the consumer society, an isolated form of entertainment imposed on the working class. The social point of view adopted in À propos de Nice seems to find its ideal continuation in the allegorical portrait of the British universe during the leisure time experience. The mechanical puppets, puppets, the presence of dummies in place of the authorities show a further reference to the figures immortalized almost thirty years earlier by Vigo and Kaufman "(pp. 198-199).

Subsequently, again in the context of the innovative Free Cinema initiatives, Nice Time (1957) by the Swiss Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta is presented, which right from the title recalls Vigo's A propos de Nice. «In the reconstruction of nightlife in the Piccadilly Circus Londoner, Tanner and Goretta have recourse to a rhythmic use of montage that appears as a direct mutuation of the film set in Nice, just as the non-naractive character that distinguishes both works is not unlike "(p. 199). After attending the screening, John Berger identifies a trait of commonality between the two films: «that character of protest that underlies the structure of Nice Time and which emerges vigorously through the characters immortalized by Tanner and Goretta. A "protest [...] not detached, or administrative", but empathic, implemented through a sharing of gaze towards the nocturnal crowd that animates the heart of London "(p. 199).

Brotto's subsequent works by Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson also seem to resume "the utopian and scratchy anarchy of the French director. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Youth, Love and Anger, 1962) by Richardson, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Morgan mad to tie, 1966) by Reisz and even more If ... (1968) by Anderson not only exacerbate a imagery in which youth is experienced as a form of abuse to which dream and freedom are opposed, but within them they clearly recreate homages to Vigo's cinema "(p. 199).

If ... is probably the film that comes closest to Zéro de conduite. «Made in 1968, If ... transports Vigo's tension into the class structures of English society in the 1960s. Life inside the college seems to retrace the same conditions of subordination experienced by the adolescents of Vigo. Here, however, the transcendental utopia seems to fail in place of an even more repressive and pessimistic atmosphere. In the final sequence, in which reality merges with the dream, we witness a new rebellion of the young students, once again on the roofs of the college. To be used against the authority represented by principals and teachers are no longer books and folders to be launched, but guns and machine guns to be held "(p. 199).

Traces of Vigo can also be found in "that cinéma vérité that in 1960 made the definition with which Edgar Morin exalts the qualities of Dziga Vertov's documentary cinema and the latter's ability to reproduce the authenticity of reality. In Towards a social cinema, in Telle est la vie and in Responsabilité de l'auteur it is evident not only the convergence between Vigo and the Russian filmmaker, but also the desire to reveal through cinema the most authentic face of reality, up to get to its aspects of invisibility "(p. 200).

Between the fifties and the seventies, Vigo was found, all the same, continues the scholar, also in creations by authors such as: Jean Rouch, Joris Ivens, Jacques Rozier, Agnès Varda, Georges Rouquier, Mario Ruspoli, Chris Marker, Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Robert Frank, Robert Kramer and Edgar Morin. «Works such as Moi, a noir (1958) by Jean Rouch, Primary (1960) by Richard Leacock, Le Joli mai (1962) by Marker and Lhomme, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) by Robert Drew, as well as the lyric La Seine a rencontré Paris (1957) by Joris Ivens, with the images of the Seine counterpointed not by chance by the lines of Jacques Prévert, and that Du côté de la côte (1958) by Agnès Varda, in which the author already returns along the Riviera observed in À propos de Nice, they are permeated by the Vigolian idea according to which: "Going towards" social cinema "means this: to agree, to demand, to allow cinema to exploit a mine of subjects continuously renewed by current affairs" (p. 201).

The "social gaze" with which Vigo observes reality is present in Georges Franju's Hôtel des Invalides (1952), a work "in which that feeling of stigma towards a superficial and distracted society is reconstituted. During a tourist visit to the Hôtel des Invalides, the historic building in the French capital, some guides are called to illustrate the history of Napoleon to a group of war invalids […] Through an alternate montage close to that structured by Vigo, however, to create a progressive reversal of meanings, highlighting the strident effect of words and images now empty of meaning in the presence of men paralyzed and disabled precisely because of the war. Although made on behalf of the French government, Franju's film recreates a condition of profound social criticism becoming a clear "condemnation of militarism". Finally, Henri Storck with his Symphonie paysanne (1942-44) had already looked directly at his friend Vigo, in particular at L'Atalante and at his love affair set within a place where his job duties are mark schedules and roles. Even in Storck love and work are called to coexist and share times and spaces, with the water of the Seine and the boat that now give way to the countryside and an old cottage. In the marriage sequence, Storck creates a new superimposition, completely similar to the aquatic one of L’Atalante. Here, however, the faces of the spouses are no longer called to float on the images of the water, but to dance in fading over those of a windmill. In returning to the Vigolian icons, Storck observes how labor and gestus have taken over dream and utopia "(p. 202).

Jean Vigo's cinema and thoughts have survived the premature death of the young French director, and in addition to being investigated by film scholars for some time, they have continued to inspire very different directors.

Denis Brotto, Jean Vigo. Complete work. Dialogue with Marco Bellocchio, Mimesis, Milan-Udine, 2018, pp. 260 + DVD video: À propos de Nice (1930); Taris ou la natation (1931), Zéro de conduite (1933), L’Atalante (Id., 1934), € 19.90

P. Rollet and S. du Mesnildot in N. Bourgeois, B. Benoliel, S. de Loppinot (edited by), L’Atalante: a film by Jean Vigo, Cinémathèque française et Pôle Méditerranéen d’Éducation Cinématographique, 2000 & nbsp;

IS. Breton, “Le repérable et le reste. L’Atalante social anchoring ", in N. Bourgeois, B. Benoliel, S. de Loppinot (edited by), L’Atalante: a film by Jean Vigo, Op. Cit. & Nbsp;

Events in Vigo