The Complete Jean Vigo
Even among cinema’s legends, Jean Vigo stands apart. The son of a notorious anarchist, Vigo had a brief but brilliant career making poetic, lightly surrealist films before his life was cut tragically short by tuberculosis at age twenty-nine. Like the daring early works of his contemporaries Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel, Vigo’s films refused to play by the rules. This set includes all of Vigo’s titles: À propos de Nice, an absurdist, rhythmic slice of life from the bustling coastal city; Taris, an inventive short portrait of a swimming champion; Zéro de conduit, a radical, delightful tale of boarding-school rebellion that has influenced countless filmmakers; and L’Atalante, widely regarded as one of cinema’s finest achievements, about newlyweds beginning their life together on a canal barge. These are the witty, visually adventurous works of a pivotal film artist.
Criterion presents the complete work of director Jean Vigo on Blu-ray in the aptly titled set The Complete Jean Vigo. The set includes the films À propos de Nice, Taris, Zéro de conduit, and his only feature length film, L’Atalante. Nice and L’Atalante are shown in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1, while the other two are presented in their original aspect ratios of about 1.19:1. All four films are given new high-definition 1080p/24hz transfers on a single dual-layer disc. It should be noted that L’Atalante comes from the 2001 reconstruction/restoration of the film.
I was a little worried at first at how the films would look. Not only is age obviously going to play a factor but, for whatever crazy reason (well, costs I’m sure are the reason) Criterion has chosen to pack over 6-hours’ worth of video onto one disc instead of spreading the material over two. I questioned this but thankfully this decision doesn’t seemed to have harmed the transfers in any noticeable way.
To first get it out of the way the source materials for these films, which are almost 80 years old, aren’t perfect. They still show signs of age and have their fair share of damage. We get scratches, marks, stains, fading, pulsating, flickers, and the like throughout all of the films. But while all of these elements are there and the jumping in the frames can be noticeable these issues are not overly distracting and don’t take away from the viewing. A lot of effort has gone into the clean-up of these films and there are long stretches where you won’t even notice a defect. Taris may be in the roughest shape and L’Atalante may be in the best, but it’s tough to call since all of the films have received an extensive restoration and clean-up.
The transfers themselves are limited by the source prints but in all they’re stable and reliable. Detail and definition is, when the source allows, quite staggering during many moments throughout the films, and if the image ever comes off soft it has more to do with the source materials. Contrast looks pretty sharp and back levels are excellent for the most part. Film grain is retained but never appears heavy and keeps a natural look.
All things considered, specifically the history of the films, these really look miraculous. A beautiful restoration and a consistent, stable transfer for each film delivers a striking visual presentation.
The lossless mono tracks each film receives varies and for most of the films the audio doesn’t hold up as well in comparison to the video, unfortunately. Nice is the sole silent film in the set but it comes with a score recorded by Marc Perrone in 2001. Since the recording is so new the track here obviously sounds the best. It’s clean, sharp, and has excellent range even though it’s still in mono.
The other films suffer from a few factors such as age, the fact that the tracks were recorded in the early days of sound, and Vigo was still learning how to use it. Taris sounds rather terrible, extremely edgy and flat, while the other two films manage to sound better but still have an edginess to them. Music is flat and at times harsh, and dialogue can sound muffled. There’s some noise noticeable in the tracks in the background but thankfully it never really calls attention to itself.
Rough overall but this is as good as it gets for now.
Counting commentaries we get over 6-hours’ worth of supplements here, Criterion giving us one of its most comprehensive editions covering a director and his work, which will work for both those familiar with Vigo and those who have never heard of the filmmaker before.
From the main menu Criterion separates each film out into its own little sub section and then places most of the supplements in their own section on the main menu. Other than Taris, which is the shortest film at 9-minutes, each film has its own Timeline feature.
Each film first receives its own audio commentary by Michael Temple, recorded exclusively for this release. He treats each track as a separate presentation (introducing himself at the beginning of each one) and primarily focuses on the film he’s speaking over, with the exception of Nice where he opens by giving a general introduction about Vigo and his early life, which naturally leads up to how he came to make his first film.
For each film he does talk about Vigo’s editing and imagery, and of course talks about the stories and presentations. He then gets into details about each film’s production, how they came to be financed (Taris was a commissioned film) and any problems that the productions faced, L’Atalante of course being the most problematic not only because of the tough shooting conditions (which Temple blames entirely for Vigo’s death at such a young age) but also because of the studio’s involvement with the final edit, changing the film entirely in hopes of making it more commercial. These elements, along with the stories about his anarchist father (his beliefs passing on to Jean and playing a big part in him making conduite) and other anecdotes prove to be the most interesting elements.
Yes, it can be dry in spots, but Temple handles it well. He makes the assumption that viewers may be familiar with French cinema but not necessarily Vigo, even assuming the viewer may have never even heard of the man, so he covers every aspect of the man’s work he can and uses more known or modern French directors in examples to show how Vigo may have come off during his time. Temple manages to keep things going throughout the entire 163-minute running time of all of the films, manages to never have any dead space and also manages to rarely repeat himself. Not a perfect track but it really is a great primer on Vigo and his work, certainly worth listening to.
Nice also receives its own unique feature in its section. Criterion gives us examples of an alternate cut for the film that Vigo made first. The notes mention that Vigo thought the film in its first was a bit dull and wanted to shorten and fine tune it, leading to the film in its present form. The video we get here are samples of some of the alternate edits, running 21-minutes in total (as I understand it this is not the complete alternate edit.) What we get is something similar but not exactly like the finished feature. The editing actually feels a little looser and maybe even a bit more disjointed. It also shows how Vigo did tighten things up, best shown in two sequences, the first being the one with the woman whose wardrobe “magically” changes (ending with her nude) and the other with the man burning in the sun. The finished version uses a tighter transitional edit where the edits here fade in and out and the sequences last a little longer. There’s some minor additions that I don’t recall from the main feature but they could have been there (placement of scenes can be a little different and that could have led me to thinking that.) In all an interesting little feature showing Vigo developing his style and flow.
The remaining supplements are then found under the “Supplements” section of the main menu. The remaining supplements sadly have very little about the first three films on the set, each maybe getting a mention (conduite does get a little more attention) but they focus mostly on L’Atalante.
First up is a rather cool 45-second animation by director Michel Gondry paying tribute to Vigo, which seems fitting. Following that is then a 98-minute episode of Cinéastes de notre temps from 1964 about Jean Vigo. This long segment gathers together those who knew the man, worked with him, or were somehow affected by his work, going over his very short film career from À propos de Nice to L’Atalante. A good chunk of it covers the making of his final film, starting with the unspectacular script that Vigo was not excited about and then how he was able to form it into the unique film we now have. Actor Michel Simon shares his memories from the set, and we get details about some of the additions to the film that weren’t in the script—like the cats. The documentary then moves on to the cuts and butchering that happened to the film while Vigo lay in his death bed, still with his sense of humour surprisingly. On camera his friends then state what they thought of the film released by Gaumont (“a mess” is probably the friendliest description we get.) A little long probably but still a fascinating account of Vigo’s short life.
Criterion next includes a discussion between Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut on L’Atalante, though discussion isn’t really the proper term. Recorded 1968 for French television to appear after a showing of L’Atalante Rohmer asks Truffaut a series of questions about the film, with Truffaut explaining how he first came to see the film, Vigo’s place as an avant-garde filmmaker, how it influenced directors at the time of the interview (Godard specifically), and he pays special attention to Michel Simon’s performance. Truffaut also talks about Fellini and one can successfully place absurdist elements into a film as Vigo did, though states that Fellini probably got a little too carried away with Juliet of the Spirits. In the end it’s not a bad segment, but it’s one of the dryer features on here. Some of Truffaut’s comments and observations are interesting but this was one of the features I was more indifferent to
Les voyages de “L’Atalante” is a 40-minute documentary from 2001 by Bernard Eisenschitz about the many versions of the film. While Temple mentions six different versions in his commentary Eisenschitz only mentions four versions, the original 1934 edit Vigo made (but was still not considered the final product), the version cut up by the studio and distributors, renamed “Le Chaland qui passé” after a popular song at the time that was also inserted into the film, a 1940 version reinstating the original title and some of the original editing, if still missing scenes, and then the 1990 reconstruction, restoring elements found from the original 1934 version, and considered the most complete version. The documentary goes through each version and explains how each came to be. Eisenschitz explains some of the edits in some of the versions, presenting comparisons showing some of the jarring cuts, some of which are odd, especially one made by prudish distributors. He also goes over how the 1990 version came to be, stressing that while it’s the more complete version it’s still an interpretation of what Vigo wanted and is not necessarily Vigo’s intended cut. In all of this we also get to see some deleted scenes, alternate takes, what you could deem bloopers, (all of which are presented with no sound) and even some behind-the-scene footage showing the director at work, which surprisingly has sound. Though I was originally thinking it would have been great if Criterion could have included one of the other versions this will certainly do as it gives a terrific idea as to how differently the versions played out with the added bonus of allowing us to some deleted sequences.
Finally Criterion presents a 19-minute interview recorded in 2001 with director Otar Iosseliani, who talks about how Vigo plays into his work (basically the director taught him how to make his films “flow nonchalantly”). He also explains how seeing L’Atalante in a Moscow film school is what cemented him in becoming a filmmaker. Fine enough interview but like the Truffaut one it actually did leave me a little cold.
The set then comes with a 44-page booklet with four essays. The first by Michael Almereyda is about Vigo’s work and style in general, while the other three, by Robert Polito, B. Kite, and Luc Sante cover À propos de Nice, Zéro de conduite, and L’Atalante respectively (Taris gets some mention). The whole booklet is an excellent read and nice closing to the edition.
Overall the supplements are extensive and informative, Criterion going all out and giving us one of their great “film school in a box” efforts, a crash course on Jean Vigo and his work. Despite a couple of hiccups it is one of the more satisfying editions I’ve come across from the company.
The Complete Jean Vigo is an absolutely fabulous edition from Criterion, a comprehensive look at the sadly short career of great director. The transfers are all stunning and the supplements as a whole are very satisfying. A great release and one that comes highly recommended.