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Jean Vigo

I pre-ordered this several months ago, but now it’s about to come out, finally, 77 years after the death of the director Jean Vigo: his complete works, on region 1 DVD. There’s already been a European PAL (as opposed to NTSC. or American, video standard) release of the same collection on the Artificial Eye label, which I have already, but it’s always nice to see essential cinema made more widely available, on the Criterion label.

As Dennis Lim notes in his excellent article on Vigo in The Los Angeles Times:

“Minute for minute, there is almost certainly no more influential figure in all of cinema than Jean Vigo. You could watch all his films in a single sitting in about the time it takes to get through Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Vigo’s one feature and three shorts fit on a single DVD — and they will be available Aug. 30 in a Criterion Collection set titled The Complete Jean Vigo (both standard-definition and Blu-ray), supplemented with a second disc of extras that includes tributes, new and old, from his many illustrious fans, among them François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Michel Gondry.”

Vigo’s reputation really rests on his anarchic 1933 44-minute classic Zéro de Conduite, about rebellion at a boy’s boarding school, which not only ridicules authority, but also incorporates a definite Surrealist streak (a drawing suddenly comes to life; sections of the film, such as the pillow fight sequence, are in dreamy slow motion, with the soundtrack run in reverse to match), and has been the influence for countless films on the same topic since, most notably Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968).

For many years, the film was banned in France outright for its unflattering portrait of the French educational system; now, of course, we can see that he was ahead of his time in documenting the inequities and injustices of the era.

Vigo also completed a short silent film, À Propos de Nice (1930), an impressionist documentary of Nice; and the bizarre sound short, Taris (1931), in which championship swimmer Jean Taris is celebrated with a variety of cinematic tricks, including walking on water in film’s final shot.

Vigo’s one feature film, L’Atalante (1934), following the lives of a young couple and their boat on the waterfront, with the great Michel Simon in a major supporting role, was butchered by the film’s distributor upon its initial release, and the music soundtrack stripped in favor of pop tunes of the day; this Criterion release uses the 1990 reconstruction of the film, which restores the work to its original, luminous beauty.

Jean Vigo died on October 5, 1934, at the age of 29, the victim of congenitally poor health, illness and malnutrition. But the work Vigo left behind continues to inspire young filmmakers to this day, and the Prix Jean Vigo is awarded in France each year to the most promising film by a young director in his memory. These are four remarkable films by someone who literally lived his life for the cinema; they demand our respect, and attention.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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