Monday, March 31, 2008

À propos de Jean Vigo

You look in the past and your eyes take time to adjust. You dive underwater and after a while you see through the blurred undercurrents of history...

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”).

His real name was Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo. He was a former aristocrat, a free spirit and revolutionary, a radical anarchist, then later socialist, but always a pacifist. He was also the editor of the radical weekly journal "La Guerre Sociale" (1906 to 1913) and then the satirical socialist daily "Le Bonnet Rouge"(1913 to 1917)". For little Jean, he was Don Quixote in the flesh. In 1914, Almereyda added his voice to the call for desertion from 1st World War general military conscription. In the middle of a french patriotic and nationalistic frenzy he had the guts to go against the tide. Inevitably he made many enemies in the French government and fell in and out of fortune as much as he was in and out of prison for his beliefs. Little Jean was always a part of this militant life, following his parents in demonstrations as well as anarchist meetings and confrontations with the police.

But that warm night in Paris in 1914, Almereyda drew the attention of his son to a table just a few feet away. It was occupied by a rather fat gentleman with a beard. That was none other than the famous socialist politician and first editor of L'Humanité, Jean Jaurès. Jaurès was admired by Almereyda because he had openly condemned the injustice of the Alfred Dreyfus affair and was a committed anti militarist who tried to use diplomatic means to prevent what eventually became the First World War. He tried to promote an understanding between France and Germany. As conflict became imminent, he struggled to organise general strikes in France and Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate. Alas, this proved very difficult because the French people, in their majority, seemed convinced at the time to seek revenge for their country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the return of the lost Alsace-Lorraine territory. On July 31, 1914 Jean Jaurès was assassinated in a Paris café by Raoul Villain, a young French nationalist. Villain was tried after World War I and acquitted.

Just a few minutes after Almereyda had drawn his son's attention to the table nearby where the socialist politician was sitting, at approximately 21h.30, two pistol shots were heard and Jean Jaurès fell to the ground heavy and lifeless pushing the little metal table in front of him and spilling his absinthe extracted Pernod liqueur glass which fell and broke with a terrible noise on the cobble stones.

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.

Jean Vigo inherited the anarchic spirit of his parents. Many times in his young age he would roam all day and sleep rough under the milky way in abandoned ruins. He disliked authority and revolted against a cruel and far from pedagogical educational system. In his twenties, while convalescing in Nice for tuberculosis, he managed to get his hands on a camera. It was a revelation. With the help of his good friend Boris Kaufman(of "On the Waterfront" fame later on) , he set on to put down on film, everything he saw and felt about society in the 20s and 30s.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Zéro de conduite is also beautiful film.