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The life and times of Jean Vigo: The man who influenced the French New Wave

French filmmaker Jean Vigo is fondly remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time who translated poetic realism to the cinematic medium. Vigo achieved immortality when his works inspired newer generations of auteurs who kickstarted the revolutionary French New Wave in the late 1950s.

The son of anarchist Miguel Almereyda, Vigo was born in an attic in France in 1905 and spent most of his childhood on the run with his parents in order to evade the authorities. Vigo’s father was murdered in prison when he was just 12-years-old and he was sent to a boarding school under an alias so that his true identity remained concealed. The ill-health that would plague him later in life was evident in his early years as well, always in a sickly condition while he changed schools and lived with different relatives as well as family friends.

Vigo entered the world of cinema as a camera assistant in the Franco film studio. Later, he used his father-in-law’s gifts to buy a second-hand camera with which he filmed his first work in 1930. It was a satirical documentary titled A propos de Nice which was influenced by Dziga Vertov’s seminal masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera. From his earliest film, it was clear that Vigo’s artistic vision was heavily inspired by his father’s anarchic ideas as well as a bold and experimental spirit.

Due to the brilliance of his debut, Vigo was commissioned to make a short documentary about the French swimmer Jean Taris which caught the attention of film scholars because of its innovative use of freeze frames and close-ups. The film defied the logic of narrative and presented the viewer with powerful imagery, exploring the potential of the visual medium. The period that would follow saw the production of Vigo’s two most important films that would go on to shape the future of not only French cinema but world cinema as well.

After moving to Paris from Nice, Vigo made Zero for Conduct which was labelled “anti-French” and banned by the authorities. It wouldn’t be shown in the country until 1945. Zero for Conduct was the manifestation of Vigo’s views on childhood through the story of a boarding school. The film investigates the repressive apparatus and compares it to the authoritarian tendencies of the government when it comes to curtailing freedom of expression and individuality. In such a hostile environment, Vigo makes it seem as if the acts of resistance belong to the realm of the surreal.

When the film was rediscovered, it proved to be influential to countless young filmmakers. François Truffaut said: “In one sense Zero de Conduite represents something more rare than L’Atalante because the masterpieces consecrated to childhood in literature or cinema can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They move us doubly since the esthetic emotion is compounded by a biographical, personal and intimate emotion … They bring us back to our short pants, to school, to the blackboard, to vacations, to our beginnings in life.”

Vigo faced a lot of backlash because of the controversial nature of Zero for Conduct which prompted him to be careful with his next project. However, the 1934 film L’Atalante would go on to be regarded as Vigo’s magnum opus as well as one of the greatest films ever made. Already affected by tuberculosis, Vigo was sick during the production of the project and his worsening condition prevented him from overseeing the final cut of L’Atalante.

The beautifully prescient film remains a wonderful thesis on the relationship between modernity and love. The French New Wave was massively influenced by Vigo’s vision and other directors like Emir Kusturica and Bernardo Bertolucci paid tribute to his masterpiece in their own works. Despite the widespread critical acclaim that he would achieve posthumously, Vigo’s films were financial failures and he was forced by circumstances to sell his camera in order to survive.

At the startlingly young age of 29, Vigo passed away due to tuberculosis-related complications. His death marked the day when France was robbed of one of its greatest artistic talents. Fortunately, history has ensured that Vigo’s brilliant legacy is continued to be experienced by multiple generations of audiences who keep finding magic in his works. Jean Vigo achieved more in his short career than most filmmakers manage to achieve in their lifetimes.