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Book Review: Jean Vigo by P.E. Salles Gomes (1998)

category france / belgium / luxemburg | culture | review author Monday May 07, 2018 11:09author by Barrie Sargeant - AWSM Report this post to the editors

This is a review of a book about the famous anarchist-inspired French film auteur Jean Vigo.

Jean Vigo by P.E. Salles Gomes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), pp. 266, ISBN: 0-571-19610-1


By the age of 27 I had taught for 6 years and was feeling ambivalent about it. I liked sharing information and helping people but hated the authoritarian and bureaucratic structures of school systems. I went home one day feeling especially frustrated. I popped on a newly purchased movie. It was called Zero de Conduite/Zero for Conduct (1933) and was just the right thing at the right time. It became one of those rare ‘before and after’ experiences.

So what was it about? The movie opens in a train carriage and we see boys playing. They return to their boarding school. We are introduced to the regime of the place. Nightly inspections occur, undertaken by the stern Deputy Principal. Anyone not meeting expected standards receives the ‘Zero for Conduct’ of the title. During the day, the playground antics of the boys are given free rein. We discover a troika of pupils plotting a rebellion. There are scenes showing the contradictory behaviour of a new liberal teacher, a lesson given by a creepy Science master and the pompous and hysterical ranting of the Principal. The revolt happens on the day V.I.Ps’ visit, with the officials being pelted from the roof and other boys waving a pirate flag. It ends with the ringleaders climbing the roof, hands raised in jubilation.

The movie is told from the boys’ perspective, with a genuine respect for the creativity of youth. It uses a diverse range of techniques, including animation integrated into the main action and reverse slow motion, giving it moments of both surrealism and lyrical beauty. The whole package intrigued me. I found out that its Director, Jean Vigo, was the son of Anarchist militants. The film was made (and subsequently banned for 15 years) when he was 27 and Vigo died at only 29. Given my own age and circumstances, I had to learn more and discovered P.E. Salles Gomes’ biography.

It is natural to begin a biography with a bit on the family background of its subject. Here the entire initial chapter centers on the life and political career of Vigo’s father. He was an anarchist involved in anti-militarist activism and a journalist, these efforts resulting in imprisonment and eventual murder while in the ‘care’ of the state. The purpose in cataloguing this activist career is to establish the huge emotional and creative impact his father had on Jean. In short, he worshipped his father after his death. The author does a subtle job of showing that this worship was somewhat misplaced and the chapter gives an interesting character study. Unfortunately it is marred by an assumption the reader is well versed in the politics of early Twentieth Century France. Lots of names are dropped in, but their significance is often unclear, even when context is provided. A re-working of the text or some footnotes would help a lot.

The next chapter is a description of Vigo’s own life which was also full of adversity. He was bullied at boarding school and constantly struggled with ill-health and poor finances all through his short life. Due to some lucky breaks and family contacts, Jean finally got into films. His chance to direct the full length feature that became Zero, eventually came his way via a sympathetic horse breeder with no experience as a film producer. The rest is history. I liked the way Salles Gomes keeps the focus here on the biographical elements of Vigo’s work. The temptation is avoided to speculate at length about the cinematic influences upon Vigo. Mention is made of Russian montage techniques and Un Chien Andalou (1928) by Dali and Bunuel, but this isn’t pushed too far. The author sees Vigo as an experimentalist, not easily categorized in (appropriately enough!) a ‘school’ of film-making. It’s a fair assessment and just the right amount of analysis for the general reader unconcerned with the sometimes arcane debates of hard-core cineastes.

The next two chapters look at Vigo’s films themselves. Salles Gomes tells us of the frequently chaotic creative process in Vigo’s work and we are offered a detailed analysis of each movie. He makes it clear that they are filled with technical and acting flaws. These criticisms are valid, so why does Vigo’s work still seem so fresh to viewers like me? The writer makes two explanatory points. The basic authenticity of the scenario in Zero has real power, rooted as it was in Vigo’s own experiences and an anarchist sensibility inherited from his father. Coupled with this is the fact that “If he makes “mistakes”, more often than not he imposes them on us the way poets do”. I found this pretty convincing.

The remainder of the book consists of a chapter on Vigo’s death and an appendix attempting to determine the critical success and impact of Vigo’s output. Most of this discussion centers on Anarchist, Fascist and Marxist critics in France and Italy from the 1930’s -1950’s. It is well written
and will please those into film theory, but isn’t vital reading for the rest of us. There is also a Foreword, updating information to the late 1990’s.

Of course, no book is ever a substitute for experiencing a movie first hand and Salles Gomes’ work is not the only one about Vigo. It is not a bad thing to read though, if you are looking for some background info on this little known anarcho-gem. And me? Well it’s nearly a decade later and I’m ‘between jobs’.

N.B: This review first appeared in Aotearoa Dissident Voice, Issue 8, March 2005, pg. 18

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