Warning for those who actually report into work environments these days: some brief French nudity. Oh là là!
À propos de Nice (On the Subject of Nice) (1930) dir. Jean Vigo & Boris Kaufman
Capturing the spirit of a city was a common documentary mode in the 1920s, best remembered in films like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera (directed by Dziga Vertov, “Nice” co-collaborator Boris Kaufman’s brother). These films largely stood to the side and filmed images of city life that were assembled with artful, Eisensteinian edits and transitions that invited comparison between shapes and motion. With “À propos de Nice,” Jean Vigo added a novel and influential element to these quasi-travelogues: a social point of view.
Vigo is to the French New Wave as James Dean is to sensitive but masculine heroes. His stature in cinema, particularly French cinema, outpaces his actual filmography which consists of exactly four films. You can view his entire filmography in less time than one of the Lord of the Rings movies: two short documentaries, and two narratives only one of which is what we’d consider “feature length.” Of the narratives, Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) served as a strong cue for much of The 400 Blows, and as sole feature projects go, L’Atlante is a heck of a contribution. His ability to work magic into these films even while using more grounded, tactile shooting methods – like fighting the technical difficulties of the nascent sound era to include much location shooting – set an example that most filmmaking would only catch up with over a decade later.
As a child, he was the son of militant dissidents, constantly on the run with his family from authorities. He was sickly on top of this, and ended up in Nice as a young man while dealing with tuberculosis. The money for this, his first film, came from a dowry bestowed by his father-in-law, giving him and Kaufman – and their wives who co-wrote – complete autonomy to capture the resort town as they saw it. And the result is a hip tourist destination as the anarchist Vigo experienced it.
After an overhead view of the city, laying out something like a checkerboard with a wobbly beach border, the film immediately shows the two side of Nice. The rich stroll the sidewalks and lounge in chairs by the shore. Workers, meanwhile, set up umbrellas on the tables and hang out the laundry. The chores of the underclass may be tedious but at least they’re in motion while the wealthy look bored out of their minds. I don’t imagine the Nice chamber of commerce approved of the multiple montages of tourists, first walking the sidewalk stonefaced, then sitting in unconcealed ennui or perusing newspapers before falling asleep in their chairs as their hats droop askew.
Most of the film is built from vérité footage shot with concealed cameras, but Vigo includes sly, staged inserts like a tanning man suddenly charred by the sun (followed by a suggestive shot of leathery alligators). One of the fashionable women magically changes wardrobe without moving a muscle, until her attire disappears entirely – the empress’s new clothes presumably. These gags are staged to blend seamlessly with the candid shots so that without the benefit of the rewind button there’s a “did I just see that?” quality to them, and a sharpening to the commentary that belies the “objective” nature of a documentary.
For every shot of a carnival parade, there’s a balancing shot to undercut it. Flowers are thrown in the streets and Vigo cuts to the hands that picked the flowers hours before in the countryside. The discarded flowers are shown trampled in the streets behind the parade. A military procession is followed by a shots of gravestones. None of this will last. But Vigo is far from dour or pessimistic. In addition to the working class motion versus leisure class inertia, he includes several shots comparing occasions for dance. There’s a formal dance of top hat and tails, forced smiles and wooden postures. And then there’s the joyous spontaneity of several ladies watching the parade from a wooden platform, can-canning and shimmying with abandon. They get far more screen time and affection from the camera than the stiffs in tuxes, making no ambiguity where Vigo casts his lot (he also cameos among the jubilant parade watchers).
Vigo’s fragile health troubled him even through filming L’Atlante, and he died after its completion at the young age of 29. His untimely death contributed to his mythic stature, suggests biographer Michael Temple, tantalizing the imagination with what someone who perished so young could have contributed with more time. But if Vigo left too early, he spent his short years leaving a deliberate impression of the point of view of a feisty French leftist. “À propos de Nice” closes with shots of discarded, grotesque parade paraphernalia giving way to more and more shots of angelic statuary and brick industrial chimneys shooting into the sky, structures that will outlast the paper and flower garbage after the parade. The images of elderly bourgeoise are replaced by shots of workers in close-up who cackle at something off screen. In Vigo’s vision, it’s they who have the last laugh.