It was a beautiful evening on the 31 of July 1914, when Jean Vigo, aged 9, sat with his father at the Café du Croissant, at the corner of the rue du Croissant and rue Montmartre in Paris. Jean adored and idolised his father who at the time went also by the revolutionary name of Miguel Almereyda (an anagram of y’a (de) la merde–”there is shit”).
Little Jean Vigo never forgot this scene in which he and his father were direct witnesses of a political assassination. But then, Jean Vigo's life was full of the twists and turns of fate and it would get a lot more personal.
On August 6, 1917, Almereyda himself was arrested for treason, allegedly for receiving funds from Germany in exchange for taking an anti-war position in his newspaper. One week later on the 13 of August, he was found dead in his jail cell, strangled with his own shoelaces. Authorities ruled his death a suicide but it is clear that this was one more political assassination.
In his first film, the silent 25 minute documentary of 1930 "À propos de Nice", the innovative and surreal camerawork coupled with his brilliantly imaginative editing, bring to life the inequality between rich and poor in a society dazzling its citizens with vain spectacles. An unbalanced and decadent society full of superficial optimism after the end of the 1st world war. But there is also humour and irony in the contradiction between the new found speed and technology and the persisting human frailty.
Jean Vigo went on to become one of the very first revolutionary and experimental film directors. With only around 3 hours length of film in total, he is today acknowledged as one of the true innovators and the definitive poète maudit of cinema. Unfortunately at the time, his provocative work, heavily cut, censured and under appreciated was a commercial failure and was quickly buried and forgotten. How could it have been otherwise? He completed another 3 films after "À propos de Nice", before he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934. His last one, "L'Atalante" (1934), is a masterpiece of social comment, raw lyricism and ethereal beauty. In the film there is one scene where the skipper of the barge "L'Atalante" is told that he will be able to see the one he loves (if the link between them is still strong) underwater. He dives into the river and there he has a vision of his loved one floating in her wedding dress. It is in moments like this, when poetry becomes film and dream becomes a conviction, that we are struck by how extraordinary was the small contribution of Jean Vigo in the art of cinema but also in humanity's heritage.