Battling chronic lung disease throughout his life, branded a traitor's son by his fellow countrymen, dead at the untimely age of 29, Jean Vigo left a truncated cinema legacy of four films. Despite his meager output, Vigo has become one of the most influential French filmmakers of the century, even if it was an honor he would never live to see. At the time of their release, the films now considered Vigo's three masterpieces, "A propos de Nice" (1929), "Zero de conduite" (1933) and "L'Atalante" (1934), were largely vilified by the critics, ignored by the public, recut and butchered by producers and exhibitors. Not until the late 1940s, during the postwar art cinema movement, was Vigo's work rediscovered and finally appreciated for its unique combination of lyric realism and daring surrealism and for its and poetic simplicity.
Vigo's life was one of constant turmoil. A sickly child who suffered from respiratory disease, Vigo was constantly shuttled in and out of hospitals and sanitariums. Both his parents were intensely involved in politics, leaving no time for the care of a child, and Jean found himself passed from relative to relative and boarding school to boarding school. During Jean's young adulthood, his father, Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (a.k.a. Miguel Almereyda), a left-wing political activist, was accused by the French government of collaborating with Germany in a scheme to end WWI, and he was put on trial as a traitor. But before Almereyda was to appear at his trial, he was found strangled in his jail cell. Embittered over the questionable circumstances behind his father's death, Vigo became embroiled in a campaign to clear his father's name, but frequent relapses of his illness somewhat diluted his efforts. In 1926, Vigo began to attend classes at the Sorbonne, sparking his interest in cinema.
In 1928, Vigo traveled to Paris, where, through meetings with Claude Autant-Lara and Germaine Dulac, he became an assistant cameraman to the noted French cinematographer Burel on "Venus." After receiving a 100,000 franc gift from his father-in-law, Vigo purchased a Debrie camera and proceeded to shoot an independent documentary, "A propos de Nice."
As with such innovators as Griffith and Welles, Vigo's genius was in incorporating past trends and reshaping them into a new film style that future filmmakers can adopt and amend. With "A propos de Nice," "Zero de conduite" and "L'Atalante," Vigo consolidated the formalistic expressiveness of the silent French avant-garde, the open naturalism of the American silent cinema of von Stroheim and Chaplin, and the blasting immediacy of Dziga Vertov's Kino Pravda newsreel. Vigo reshaped these strands into a cinema of stylized realism. His films were poetic studies of small details and processes transformed into celebrations of mythic moments.
"A propos de Nice" uses satirical exaggerations and sexual imagery to explode a seemingly gentle travelogue into a subversive expose of a way of life. "Taris Champion de Natation" (1931), his second film, enlisted a toned-down surrealism which undercut a celebratory profile of a famous swimmer. In its depiction of an authoritarian adult world in a French boarding school, "Zero de conduite" employed an opposition between formalist caricature and a hyper-real depiction of a child's world view to criticize stifling regimentation and conservatism. And in "L'Atalante," Vigo wove a simple, graceful narrative into a celebratory ode to movement and the present tense. In these films, Vigo strove to create a new, immediate style that was later to achieve full expression in the open cinema of Welles and Renoir and retooled into the French New Wave essays of Jean-Luc Godard.
But the bright promise of Vigo in pursuit of a new film style was suddenly crushed when, on October 5, 1934, a few days after the opening of "L'Atalante," Jean Vigo succumbed to rheumatic septicameia. However, by its lyrical grace and sparkling immediacy, Vigo's scant film work has endured and re-shaped cinema, its towering contradictions and poetic sensibility ever fresh and new.