Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Complete Jean Vigo — The Criterion Collection

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Complete Jean Vigo — The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The Films
With only four films to his name, running under three hours combined, Jean Vigo has one of the easiest filmographies to get through if you’re working through the oeuvres of great filmmakers. But even though Vigo died at 29 from tuberculosis and surely never fully realized his potential, he left behind a body of work that features quality inversely proportional to its quantity.

Criterion has put together a superb package of all four of Vigo’s films, titled The Complete Jean Vigo. The films included are:

À propos de Nice (1930)
A silent semi-documentary about the coastal town of Nice, À propos de Nice stands alongside similar films Man with a Movie Camera and People on Sunday as an energetic, effervescent portrait of a city in motion. Vigo’s film has a satiric edge about societal decadence that requires more contextual information to really grasp, but even without it, its straddling of surrealism and realism points toward the precise balance Vigo would strike in each of his films.

Taris (1931)
A delightful 9-minute short about Olympic swimmer Jean Taris, the film begins as a sort of crash course in proper swimming technique and veers off into a magical underwater world. The images Vigo captures of Taris submerged in the pool, swimming and twirling in the water, have a bewitching quality that’s hard to explain. The film reminds me of the work of Jean Painlevé, a friend of Vigo’s whose underwater films of sea life created similarly surreal images from totally natural happenings.

Zéro de conduite (1933)
A brash, fragmented tale of youths rebelling at a boarding school, Zéro de conduite is Vigo’s first strictly fiction film, and he packs an immense amount of content into its 44 minutes. The film understands the essence of childhood, down to its very structure, with is fitful starts and stops and wide-eyed lack of focus. Loosely, the film is about a group of boys’ plans to ruin their school’s commemoration day, but Vigo clearly isn’t interested in presenting a strong narrative through-line. Rather, it’s the film’s anarchic spirit that comes through loudest and clearest — it’s a tightly wound sucker punch of disorderly behavior that was banned by French censors for more than a decade.

L’Atalante (1934)
Vigo’s final film, L’Atalante, is also considered one of the finest ever made, and one can see the culmination of his various approaches in his previous films applied here to a more conventional narrative. The film concerns itself with Jean and Juliette (Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo), a pair of newlyweds embarking on their new life on a barge where Jean is captain. They go from wedded bliss to disillusionment fast, with neither adjusting particularly well to the new situation.

She’s dismayed by the living conditions on the barge; he’s convinced she’s flirting with every man she runs across, even the crusty second-in-command (the ever-charming Michel Simon). The two separate, leading them on their own increasingly dreamlike paths back to one another. Vigo’s film loops from gritty naturalism to woozy, otherworldly moments like an underwater ballet of longing that harks back to Taris. L’Atalante doesn’t seem like the work of a director making his first film that runs over an hour. It’s fascinating to wonder what might have been if Vigo had had the time to develop an entire career, but what he accomplished remains remarkable.

The Blu-ray Disc
The four films are presented in 1080p high definition, with Taris and Zéro de conduite in 1.19:1 and À propos de Nice and L’Atalante in 1.33:1. All four films have their fair share of damage in the form of persistent scratches, but unrestored footage of the films seen in the bonus material makes it clear they’ve undergone significant cleanup. Each possesses solid amounts of fine detail, with strong contrast and grayscale separation. Close-ups are especially lovely in L’Atalante and Taris.

Audio is presented in uncompressed monaural tracks that show their age, but present dialogue adequately and clearly. The score for À propos de Nice is from 2001 and by Marc Perrone.

Special Features
A feature-length episode of Cinéastes de notre temps from 1964 offers a comprehensive look at Vigo’s life and career. A 1968 interview of François Truffaut by Eric Rohmer features the two filmmakers discussing L’Atalante, with Truffaut expressing great admiration for the film and Vigo.

A 2001 documentary by Bernard Eisenschitz discusses the various cuts made to L’Atalante after its release. It was butchered several times and released in at least four different versions over the years. A 2001 interview with French-Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani features him discussing his thoughts on Vigo.

A brief, minute-long animated tribute to Vigo by Michel Gondry is also included on the disc, along with an alternate edit of À propos de Nice and audio commentaries for all four films by Michael Temple.

The package also includes a booklet with essays by Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite and Luc Sante.

The Bottom Line
It’s not often a filmmaker’s entire body of work fits on one disc, nor is it common for a filmmaker's early works to show such virtuosity. The Complete Jean Vigo represents an extremely impressive collection.

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