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The Complete Jean Vigo
cast: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, and Jean Taris

director: Jean Vigo

158 minutes (PG) 1930-4
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Jean Vigo was born in 1905 and didn't live to see his 30th birthday. His complete works comprise two shorts; one mid-length film and one feature, and are all included on this two-disc set. Yet his influence has been enormous, not least on the French New Wave a quarter of a century after his death.

As with any artist who dies young, speculation as to what he might have achieved if he had survived is fascinating but ultimately pointless. But what Vigo did achieve in his short filmmaking career, despite lack of funding, often primitive technology (this was less than a decade after sound had been introduced), is a compelling mix of lyricism, sometimes bordering on surrealism, anarchic humour, and - especially in L'Atalante - an aching romanticism. You have to acknowledge the input of his regular cameraman Boris Kaufman (brother of Russian documentarian Dziga Vertov) who went on to a distinguished career in Hollywood, winning an Oscar for On The Waterfront; also a nod to the leading actors of L'Atalante. But these are ultimately films you have to credit to their director. And in 1934 he was dead, aged 29, of tuberculosis.

Vigo's films work primarily on a visual level (A Propos de Nice is silent with a music track and the sound recording on the other three films is decidedly primitive). It hasn't always been possible to see the film as it should be seen, due to censorship, re-editing by producers and nth generation poor prints. But the films have all been restored, and short of a big screen showing this DVD is the way to see them.

Disc one contains Vigo's four films - A Propos de Nice (22 minutes) is a rapidly cut montage of the fashionable tourists, the cafes, and the seafront but also the poorer parts of the city of Nice. One sequence, a series of dissolves taking a fully clothed woman in a deckchair and removing her clothes so that she becomes topless, was famously cut by the BBFC in the 1930s - at least on 35mm prints. 16mm prints, shown in film societies, were not then subject to censorship so retained the sequence in its entirety. Also on the disc is the 28-minute original cut of the film.

La Natation par Jean Taris (nine minutes) is a short documentary as the celebrated French swimming champion gives an impromptu lesson. The film, in Vigo's hands, becomes an excuse for camera trickery such as slow and fast motion and an experiment in filming underwater. (In an interesting film link, Taris competed in the 1932 Olympics but came second - to Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, later to become a film star himself, in the Flash Gordon serials.) Zéro de conduite (42 minutes) is an anarchically humorous film showing life at a French boarding school, where the headmaster is a dwarf. Vigo here takes his revenge on his own schooling and shows how the boys rebel against the school authorities. The film was banned in its day, but its visual language and wit have been highly influential, most notably on Lindsay Anderson's If... (Anderson was a huge admirer of Vigo, and is quoted on the DVD box cover.)

Finally, we have Vigo's only feature, L'Atalante (85 minutes), originated in a script given to the young director by the studio. At heart it's a simple love story: Juliette (Dita Parlo) marries Jean (Jean Dasté), the skipper of a barge called L'Atalante. Also on the barge are the eccentric first mate, Pè�re Jules (Michel Simon), a cabin boy, and lots of cats. But Juliette and Jules' love is tested when, in Paris, a flashy salesman hits upon Juliette. The film is a compelling mix of humour and a startling visual language, which mixes location-shot realism with flights of fancy, such as a scene of Jean licking a large block of ice. It's also a very moving love story.

All films are shown in their original 1.33:1 ratios, with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtracks. English subtitles are optional. The films inevitably show the results of wear and tear, scratches and spots, but these have been kept to a minimum and for films over 70 years old they look remarkably good. The sound has been restored as well, reducing noise and hiss. They will never be state of the art tracks, but they are quite clear. Some of Michel Simon's mumbling is meant to be unclear, so that's not the fault of the restorers.

Disc two comprises several extras: Filmmakers Of Our Time: Jean Vigo, a 94-minute TV documentary from 1964 made by French television, interviewing many people who worked with Vigo and remember him. The Voyages Of L'Atalante (38 minutes) is an examination of the various versions of the film over the years, including a studio cut which went out under the title Le Chaland qui passe. From L'Atalante To L'Atalante is a nine-minute introduction to the release of the restored version in 1990. Sound Regained (10-minutes) shows us detail of the restoration of the soundtrack, using the latest computer equipment. There's also a 19-minute interview with Georgian-born, French-based director Otar Iosseliani, talking about his first viewing of L'Atalante and how it inspired him to become a film director, three minutes from Gaumont newsreels showing Jean Taris in action, a poster gallery, a stills gallery and a Vigo biography.
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