L’Atalante – Unspectacularity

Thoughts On: L’Atalante (1934)

Newly wed to a boat skipper, a small-town girl travels down the river Seine with his small crew.

Seen from a distance and without context, L’Atalante is a simple film that poignantly explores young love. It has flawed technical attributes in regard to sound design and the edit, but is nonetheless captivating and impressive. However, when we begin to consider the films from the early talkie period of the 30s, we can begin to see why this film is often regarded as one of the greatest pictures ever made.

Awash with Hollywood classics such as Frankenstein, Scarface, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Ninotchka, Bringing Up Baby, Swing Time, King Kong, The Invisible Man and Duck Soup, the 30s are overflowing with timeless stories from all genres. And this is what helped established Hollywood’s Golden Age; there was a rich period of fantastical storytelling that only grew in its capacity for wish-fulfilment and spectacle as we moved into the 40s and 50s. A significant aspect of this growth was of course the studio system which, in certain senses, transformed Hollywood into a vast manufacturing factory. And as the metaphor suggests, the productions of the studio system where subject to standards – formal, aesthetic and story-wise – which leaves the 30s as a time in which films weren’t very distinct from one another. In short, there was no Kubrick, no Scorsese, no Wes Anderson, no unique auteur which hugely differentiated themselves from main stream in a lasting manner.

This lack of style and individuality in 30s filmmaking was challenged only by a few – and Vigo was one of these. Often, regarded in the same capacity as Dreyer and Renoir, Vigo developed a unique style that shattered standards of continuity, mise en scene and structure; a style which is most evident in his one and only feature, L’Atalante. With a powerful use of leading lines and negative space, Vigo constructed this film with Boris Kaufman in spite of many restrictions and troubles. In such, a large reason why there is such a powerful use of the voidal sky and water throughout this film was because of weather; Vigo couldn’t shoot the ground because it started to snow in later parts of production. This leaves Vigo’s style to be one defined by realism as, despite shooting some interior scenes within a studio, he endeavoured to capture the real world in an unspectacular fashion – just as he had in his previous shorts (À Propos De Nice in particular). Vigo even  shot certain sequences in a documentary-esque fashion in the tail end of production when he was running out of money and under pressure from the studio.

And on the note of restrictions and troubles, Vigo ran into a lot of difficulty getting this film made – but even more in post production. He initially wanted to work on an original story, but, considering his lack of previous successes and abundance of controversy, his producer give him a banal script that somewhat resembled L’Atalante. After re-writing and shooting the script with monetary pressures, Vigo’s initial cuts where disregarded by the studio and chopped down due to unsatisfied distributors at Gaumont. Over the years, L’Atalante has in fact been through numerous re-edits – up until as recently as 2001.

The reason for the initial studio interference comes down to Vigo’s health; he simply wasn’t able to fight for his film. A detail that we haven’t mentioned so far in our look at the films of Vigo is that he had tuberculosis – in all probability, because of his impoverished life. Throughout his work on his films, especially L’Atalant which was shot over many months and often outside in the winter, Vigo had health issues. After a rough cut had been constructed he had to take a break due to a fever he had developed, and so took a holiday then returned to Paris with his family. It’s here however, where he remained bedridden, unable to work on a final cut of his film, until he died later in the year.

It is often speculated that, as much as Vigo’s father influenced him and his career, so did his struggle with tuberculosis. When we look back to his exploration of poverty and the upper classes in À Propos De Nice, it’s evident that Vigo is making a film that seemingly comes from every facet of his life with strands of anarchy, socialist/Marxist critique and with sympathy for the average person. And this same flow of creativity exists in L’Atalante; we see this through the depiction of the cats and the terrible living conditions of our characters, knowing that Vigo was far from wealthy and that his father often had many stray cats in their home when he was a boy. Again, we could make a comparison to Chaplin, but it’s also very clear that Vigo’s style and the uniqueness of this film comes directly from the pressure of all kinds that he faced.

So, with Vigo’s backstory at hand, the simple romance captured by L’Atalante elevates it into a much more poignant and genuine piece of work. In such, Vigo had evolved over his short career, transitioning from an outspoken and highly critical montage to a poetic-realist romance that is essentially about loyalty and trust, themes developed from a purely mundane and unspectacular perspective.

This is seemingly what defines Vigo as one of the most significant figures of the early talkie period. He swam against the tide with unspectacular films and an unspectacular career that were nonetheless unique, innovative and true of his character. This is exactly what we saw reprised and capitalised on during the French New Wave with Vigo and his films being an incredible influence of the auteurs of the time. It was then the likes of Godard, Varda and Truffaut that continued on Vigo’s play with form, editing, continuity and camera work; his approach to social critique and his application of realism that stemmed from his own life and personality. So, as much as we have to appreciate the New Wave films of the late 50s and 60s, in turn, its influence on New Hollywood and beyond, we also have to consider Vigo, an auteur developing a shade of modern cinema a quarter of a decade beforehand.

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Zéro De Conduite – Timeless Frustration

Thoughts On: Zéro De Conduite (Zero For Conduct, 1933)

A controversial depiction of repressive school systems and rebellion.

Zéro De Conduite, or Zero For Conduct, is a semi-autobiographical film that draws from Jean Vigo’s experience in boarding school as a young child, and it uses a somewhat abstract narrative to project a comedic, surreal and child-like story of a rebellious uprising against boarding school teachers as lead by four students.

Made for 200,000 francs and with non-professional actors, this film can be seen as a precursor to the Italian Neorealist movement of the post-war era. Unfortunately, Zero For Conduct does suffer from a few problems due to budgetary constraints – the main problem concerning the sound design. This leaves a tension between a silent film and a talkie tone/aesthetic whilst reducing some of the abstract elements of the narrative to incoherent sequences. And this detail is not helped by the sometimes awkward edit that is scattered and lacking of clarity – a flaw that Vigo had to suffer so that he could keep the run time down. An example of this incoherence would be the ‘magic trick’ with a ball in the classroom. This sequence lacks a strong sense of character motivation, a motif that leaks through the entirety of the script, which is initially jarring, but begins to make sense as the style of the narrative becomes clearer.

It is then once the story settles and it becomes clear that this is a surreal film that its many moving parts begin to make a lot more sense. In such, the realism merging with surrealism presented by the conflict between the story’s structure and production establishes Zero For Conduct as a unique film for its time that, as with all of Vigo’s films, served as a medium for social commentary.

It is clear that Vigo designed this narrative to contain these elements of spectacle and realism through his reference to Chaplin with an imitation of The Tramp that one of the more lenient school masters performs. Much like Chaplin, Vigo draws upon an incredibly difficult childhood and funnels it into his narratives. A good point of comparison that can be made between Vigo and Chaplin would then be through Chaplin’s The Kid.

In the penultimate sequence of The Kid, Chaplin jumps into a surreal dream world in which he dies, goes to a heavenly version of reality, causes trouble as a promiscuous angel and then is shot by the police. We see a similar approach to narrative in the final sequence of Zero For Conduct where, following a lecture from the headmaster, there is a hard cut to the following night where all the children destroy their room. This is the most mesmerising sequence and makes about as much narrative sense as Chaplin’s dream sequence – though it has to be said that Chaplin structures his surreal sequence into the narrative with a much stronger projection of linear sense.

Underlying both the dream sequence and pillow fight sequence is a poetic evocation of impressionism, an approach to story which captures a subjective perception, one that has basis in reality and in turn comments on it. In such, the sequence from The Kid uses The Tramp’s paternal miseries to explore the hopes of an impoverished parent whilst the pillow fight from Zero For Conduct captures the frustrated dreams of suppressed and controlled young boys.

What is significant about Zero For Conduct alone is that it manages to apply this narrative concept to the entire form of a film instead of reserving it for a dream sequence that is easily swallowed and glanced past as ‘just a dream’. We see this through the camera movement and the edit; scenes like the penultimate lecture in the classroom with the panning, observational camera and the fractured jump into the next sequence. And, as implied, there is a strong sense of impressionism within this film; it ties a realist sensibility into the surreal sequences by capturing the perspective of a child and the likeness of memory (memories which we can assume belong to Vigo). This is what makes Zero For Conduct such a lasting and unique film; it captured an approach to story that not only played with the form of cinema, but used this in an effective and culturally impactful manner.

The latter idea is pretty undeniable when we consider the fact that Zero For Conduct was banned in France after shocking many audiences and offending split critics. The reason why this film was banned comes down to its ludicrous depiction of rebellion and clear commentary on societal paradigms involving a ruling minority oppressing and controlling a powerless majority. And it’s this sentiment, this frustration, that is the strongest element of this narrative. The fact that it got under the skin of so many certainly seems to validate the directness and poignancy of the narrative. And adding to the cultural significance of this film is certainly its influence on the New Wave auteur, François Truffaut, in his film The 400 Blows – which not only carries the same core emotion of frustration in a young boy, but directly references Zero For Conduct in its classroom sequences.

In conclusion, whilst Zero For Conduct is a dated film with a few faults, it manages to capture a unique aesthetic, structure and approach to story that projects timeless themes and in turn allows this movie to be, in many respects, transcendent nonetheless.

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