Film Histories Episode 36 – Jean Vigo & Poetic Realism

Sometimes an artist comes along that has such a profound influence, they never get to see their impact in their lifetime. Which is exactly what happened to Jean Vigo, the French filmmaker who broke all
the rules with his films. And unfortunately succumbed to an early
death. But his legacy helped fellow French filmmakers shape a profoundly influential movement, that would become known as poetic realism. Jean Vigo and Poetic Realism. Jean Vigo was born on April 26th 1905 in
Paris France. Jean’s father was a high-profile
military anarchist who ran a newspaper that was highly critical of the French
government. This caused Vigo and his family to constantly be on the run, to evade French police who were looking to arrest Jean’s father. Eventually they were caught and Jean’s father was sent to prison where he was murdered shortly
after his arrival. Jean was 12. The chaos of his early life had a profound impact on Jean and his view of the world. Living continuously on the brink of poverty which had a lasting effect on him. Jean was forced to adopt a new identity
to hide the fact of who his father was and he became Jean Sales. He bounced around between relatives and boarding schools, until he came of age and he
reclaimed his name once again becoming Jean Vigo. He entered Sorbonne University where he met Elizabeth Lozinska, daughter of a prominent manufacturer and eventually marrying her. Moving up from poverish mean, Jean showcased aspirations to become a filmmaker. And to show people he was serious, he took a job as a camera assistant for the Franco film studio. His new father-in-law, impressed by his
ambitions purchased a used camera for Jean, and gifted him the means to
create his first film. Jean wanted a craft of film highlighting the daily life of residents of Nice. Moving away from a conventional plot, he wanted to show the differences between the wealthy residents and the poor residents in the
resort town. Highlighting the income inequality. Jean had grown up poor and
most films only highlighted high-class societies in well-off families. Jean wanted to do away with that. He wanted to show people what the real world was actually like. A truly revolutionary idea. But before production on his first film
began in 1929, two important factors occurred. The first, is that Jean contracted tuberculosis. Which he would struggle to overcome for the remainder of his life. The second, he met Boris and Mikhail Kaufman, the younger brothers of
filmmaker Dziga Vertov, director of the influential 1928 film “The Man with the Movie Camera,” a film that had a tremendous impact on filmmakers, including Jean Vigo. Mikhail had served as cinematographer on the film, and the brothers were intrigued with Jean’s idea and decided to help with the script and shoot the film. Titled “A Propos de Nice,” the film was released on May 28th 1930, a short silent documentary showing and critiquing the disparity between the classes of residents in Nice. It was a surrealist and social consciousness tour de force that many felt was both disturbing and a masterpiece. Jean’s film had a poetic style to it something that had not been seen before and something that would be highly influential in the years to come. Jean’s next film was another short documentary on the French Olympic swimmer Jean Taris, titled “Taris.” Jean introduced new techniques in this film that he would later use including close-ups of images without clarity of what they were and
freeze frames. The film running at only nine minutes was well received but didn’t get the attention like his first short did. Upon the release of Taris, Jean
met Jacques-Louis Nounez, who became an admire of Jean’s work and wanted to make films himself. Jacques was a wealthy businessman and he proposed funding Jean’s next project but insisted it would be a feature film. Jean wrote a script based on his experience at boarding school about four boys who decide to overthrow
the teachers and take over the school, titling it “Zero for Conduct.” Jacques loved the script and funded the film for 200,000 francs. Jean casted unknown actors for the film often, just asking people in the streets if they wanted to be in a film. Production lasted only a month with Jean struggling to finish the due to his health issues from tuberculosis. But he was able to complete the film and screened it for the first time on April 7th 1933. Where he was booed by the audience. Critics were split over the film, with
some claiming it to be a masterpiece, while others believed it to be pure
trash. The film was quickly banned in France. Authorities believed they would rile up the youth and destroy law and order in the country. Despite the backlash from Zero for Conduct, Jacques still wanted to work with Jean and asked him to make another film. This time a story idea from Jacques titled “L’Atalante.” About a couple who live on a ship and the struggles between them. Originally, Jean wanted to make a film on Euguene Dieudonne, an associate of his father’s and the current state of French prisons. However, Jacques talked him out of it due to the negative criticisms Zero for Conduct had received. Jean was reluctant at first, as barge dwellers, or films about couples on ships were particularly popular in France at the time, and Jean didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. But he agreed. Jacques was able to secure a deal with the Gaumont film company and get 1 million francs for the film. This time using actual actors and
sets, The production took over four months with stories of Jean having scenes be redone over and over again until he had proved them to be perfect. The production ran over schedule and over budget, and Jean’s health began to decline rapidly. Gaumont executives were furious with the film being over schedule and over budget. Jacques was able to convince Gaumont not to replace Jean, with the deal that production would halt for a few weeks to allow Jean to recover. But Jean refused. He instead decided to film key scenes that had yet to be filmed like a documentary, so that it could be done quickly Eventually, the film wrapped and Jean was able to put together a rough cut before being involuntarily bedridden. Which he remained for the rest of his life. The film was completed without Jean and
premiered on April 25th 1934 to once again a disastrous reception. Gaumont executives took the film and recut it, removing almost 20 minutes, reordering scenes and changing the title to the “Passing Barge.” Jean was unable to defend the film due to his health and the recut version of the film was released in September 1934, to horrid
reviews and a terrible box-office performance. One month after the film’s
release Jean Vigo died on October 5th 1934. He was 29 years old. Shortly after Jean’s death, French filmmakers began adopting the approach Jean Vigo took, in particular the way his films showed realistic situations and characters and his poetic approach. Filmmakers like Julian Duvivier, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné were influenced by Jean and started making films and will become the poetic realism movement. Poetic realism or sometimes referred to
as stylized realism, was a movement in which filmmakers created a bleak view of the world, characters with grey morals who were often from poverty. Instead of focusing on characters from high-class society, poetic realism films showed characters who are common laborers or felons. Characters trapped by society’s
burdens struggling to escape, and often being put into situations that would not yield a happy ending. But by no means did Jean Vigo start the poetic realism movement, instead that is usually attributed to Jean Gremillion and his 1930
film “La Petite Lise,” and Jacques Feyder’s 1935 “Pension Mimosas.” Instead, Vigo’s work was still banned and looked down upon at the time by most audiences by the time these filmmakers were beginning to craft their masterpieces, Such as “Pepe Le Moko,” “The Grande Illusion,” “The Beast Within,” “Daybreak, and “The Rules of the Game.” But these filmmakers still saw Jean’s work, and it evidently influenced them. They welcomes Jean’s films with open arms, while critics and audiences rejected them. Poetic realism came to an end at the end of the 1930s, mostly attributed to the rise of World War II, and the fall France by the Nazis. Audiences didn’t want to watch films that were so bleakly real, when just outside there was a war. After the war, the ban on Zero for Conduct was lifted in 1945 where the film was viewed more favorably. L’Atalante’s original 89 minute version was restored and returned to theaters to enthusiastic reviews. With some calling it the greatest film ever made. In 2017, Sight and Sound listed the film as the number 12th best film ever made. and Jean Viggo’s reputation as a great filmmaker being commonly accepted The influence Jean Vigo had on cinema
had lasting effects throughout the 1930s Particularly with the poetic realism
movement. While he didn’t make the first poetic realist film, Vigo opened the doors to what the film could truly become. Vigo broke the rules, he rebelled against the status quo of what kind of films could be told. And that had a lasting impact on filmmakers to come including the next big French film movement in the 1950s, the French New Wave. But more on that in another episode. Thanks for watching.

6 thoughts on “Film Histories Episode 36 – Jean Vigo & Poetic Realism

  1. Another amazing and informative video as always. Keep up the fantastic work. 🙂

  2. Another great episode. For some reason, watching this I was reminded of Tarkovsky.

  3. So called poetic realism began in France in the early twenties with filmmakers such as Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Dmitri Kirsanoff and Jean Gremillon, not in the thirties. Apart from this style there were others such as Abel Gance who were experimenting with narrative films, and there were the films of the Surrealist and Dadaist artists/filmmakers made in France in the twenties. Vigo's work belonged to these traditions and were a sort of consummation of filmmaking like this….You didn't mention Vigo's most famous acolyte Francois Truffaut

  4. Great episode. I immediately subscribed. If your interested you should look out the work of Scottish Filmmaker Bill Douglas

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