Although Jean Vigo only made a handful of films before he passed away at the untimely age of 29, his body of work is often cited as one of the most important cinematic achievements in the history of the medium. Through his innovative incorporation of poetical realism in his artistic vision, Vigo popularised new sensibilities that later inspired the French New Wave.
Born in France in 1905, Vigo’s childhood played a huge part in the development of his creative inclinations. Due to the revolutionary activities of his anarchist parents, the young Vigo spent a lot of time on the run before his father was eventually murdered when he was just 12 years old. Vigo’s battle with sickness was also evident from a young age since he started experiencing bouts of illness early on.
Starting out as a camera assistant, Vigo’s career was extremely short-lived since he passed away in 1934 due to tuberculosis-related complications but he had managed to achieve more than most filmmakers in that relatively brief period of artistic activity. Despite being cut down in his prime, Vigo’s cinematic work remains an indispensable part of film history.
Jean Vigo’s films ranked:
4. Taris (1931)
After Vigo made his pioneering debut film À propos de Nice, he was asked to make a documentary about the French swimmer Jean Taris. While it is not as revolutionary as some of his other works, his mastery over the technical aspects of filmmaking is evident here as well.
Many critics have noted homoerotic elements in this 1931 work which depicted an almost surreal vision of water and swimming. In the years that have followed, Taris is mostly remembered for its innovative incorporation of techniques such as close-ups and freeze frames.
3. À propos de Nice (1930)
Inspired by Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Vigo set out to capture the hypocrisies of modern society with a camera that he bought with the money that his father-in-law gave him. An unprecedented exploration of the cityscape, À propos de Nice was the perfect manifestation of his father’s political influence as well as his experimental tendencies.
While commenting on his own work, Vigo said: “In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial. The last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.”
2. Zero For Conduct (1933)
One of Vigo’s greatest achievements, Zero For Conduct is a delightfully anarchic vision of a boarding school where rebellious students plan on subverting the repressive structures of power by staging a revolt and taking control over the institution.
Vigo’s surreal stylisation of the very act of resistance has become seminal, inspiring other works such as The 400 Blows. The film was banned at the time of its release for being too politically volatile but it gained recognition in subsequent years after it was rediscovered in 1945.
1. L’Atalante (1934)
Perhaps the most famous film by Vigo, L’Atalante explores the intricacies of a relationship between a barge captain and his wife after they start living on a ship. Made during a time when Vigo was suffering due to his health-related issues, L’Atalante is his undisputed magnum opus.
Despite being regularly included in the list of the greatest films ever made, L’Atalante was a critical and commercial failure when it came out and Vigo was too sick to say anything. In those final days, he had to sell his camera in order to survive but history has helped re-evaluate the genius of Jean Vigo.