An anarchist cinema: Jean Vigo

Freedom is lived in the body.  And the cinema of Jean Vigo is a celebration of that freedom.  In À propos de Nice, Vigo’s first film, the dancers of Carnival are contrasted with the self-conscious and tedious bodies of bourgeois tourists, idly killing time on the Promenade des Anglais, or dancing theatrically in a hotel ballroom.  In the popular neighbourhoods of the city, the melancholy labour and poverty of those who render the bourgeois life possible repeats itself; a tortured, sub-proletariat, reservoir of a different world; the physicality of their lives offers perhaps hope.  The possible tension between the two however is disarmed by death.  Vigo’s poor are not the subjects of revolution and liberation.  Their filth and wretchedness is but the underbelly, the contrasting mirror image, of a world that must be brought to an end.  The carnival is the sublimation of both, the transgression of the order of wealth and poverty; freedom is found, created, in the unrestrained joy of dance.

À propos de Nice (1930) …

The celebration of the body would return in Vigo’s second film, Taris ou la natation, with the french swimmer Jean Taris, made not only the object of a documentary on swimming prowess and skill, but metamorphosised into the body of a free man in movement in the liberating element of water.

Taris ou la natation (1931) …

The children’s rebellion against the corporeal regime of the body of school in Zéro de conduite is a manifesto of the flesh; against the domestication of gesture, the impoverished repetition of food, the punishment of sexual transgression, the children crucify the surveyor of the student’s dormitory, dance a march of freedom and liberate themselves from school activity under the skull and crossbones of the pirate flag of rebellion.  The revolt is summarised in the character Tabard’s declaration to teacher and principal, “Je vous dis Merde!” and sung from the rooftop of the prison school in a hymn to revolution:

“War is declared! Down with supervisors! Down with punishments! Long live the rebellion! Liberty or death! We plant our flag on the college roof! Tomorrow, everyone, rise up with us!”

Zéro de conduite (1933) …

L’Atalante, Vigo’s last film, will in the bodies of its central characters, Jean, Juliette and Père Jules, weave a narrative of discovery and creation, of violence, pain and pleasure.  No one character is personalised, psychologised.  They inhabit the screen as children, reacting as their experiences and passions move them.  They adventure, they fail, but ever open to what the world offers, they are carried forward by the one thing that can create freedom: love, the love of resistant friendship and the love of those who share their bodies without shame.

Vigo’s cinematographic world is without moralisms.  Forgiveness and redemption are absent.  In there place is the tattooed body of Père Jules, testament to the freedom of corporeal innocence and joy.

L’Atalante (1934) …

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