Thoughts On: À Propos De Nice (Concerning Nice, 1930)
Today, we’ll be opening a short series on the films of Jean Vigo. Through this we’ll be looking at the filmmaker’s whole body of work – À Propos De Nice, Taris, Zéro De Conduite and L’Atalante – starting with his first film and ending with his last. In such, we will be exploring Vigo’s films as well as taking a peep into aspects of his life.
A satirical city symphony ‘Concerning Nice’.
Jean Vigo, born in Paris and into poverty during 1905, was the son of a Spanish activist. This man was Eugène Bonaventure Jean-Baptiste Vigo, who renamed himself, Miguel Almereyda. A militant journalist, activist, anarchist and later socialist, Almereyda founded and wrote within his own newspapers. A character maybe best defined by his chosen name, “Almereyda” is an anagram for “y’a la merde”, which means, “there’s shit”.
Through one of his newspapers, Le Bonnet Rouge (The Red Bonnet), Almereyda was critical of WWI and of extreme right-wingers. Despite the political activism and bias within the paper, Le Bonnet Rouge was granted governmental subsidies because it denounced violent protest against the war and (presumably) allowed for certain governmental figures to politic and manage relationships between the then left and right. However, what Almereyda did with this money granted by the government is questionable as he probably used it to fund both his paper and personal life, allowing him to live lavishly.
The controversy surrounding Almereyda reached greater heights when his paper published work of Lenin’s that involved him discussing his goals with Russia. This was not well received; Almereyda was deemed to be colluding with a man who was seen to be an agent of France’s enemy at the time, the Germans, and so he lost his governmental funding. Things worsened for Almereyda, however, when his company was found with a 100,000 franc check for a German bank account in 1917. This acted as a confirmation that he was colluding with the enemy and so he was sent to prison for treason, where, after being transferred out of Paris, he was soon found dead. Whilst it is said that he hung himself with boot laces, autopsies revealed that Almereyda was almost certainly murdered.
It is by this time that Jean Vigo would only have been around 12-years-old. He and his mother, whilst they had often been on the run with Almereyda, had to go into hiding. Vigo was then sent to boarding school under a fake name: Jean Sales. But, by 1922, he had moved back to Paris with his mother where he attended university – now under his real name again. A few years later, Vigo had met his wife and shortly worked in the Franco Film Studio as a camera assistant. Briefly after this period, Vigo had acquired a second-hand camera and befriended the Russian cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, as well as his brother, Mikhail. Boris Kaufman, in later years, worked on films such as On The Water Front and 12 Angry Men, and was also the brother of David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman, but also, Dziga Vertov.
With Vertov of course being one of the most significant filmmakers of all time thanks to his Soviet Montage film theory and the masterpiece that is Man With A Movie Camera, Vigo demonstrates ties with Russian culture through his collaboration with Boris Kaufman. This then cites the impression that his father, Almereyda, had on him. Not only was Vigo considered a Marxist, but he too was a social radical of sorts and would soon become a controversial figure in France through his films.
However, without straying ahead, with Vigo’s collaboration with Kaufman and with his second-hand camera under-arm, he worked on a script for a short film alongside Boris and the pairs’ wives. This script came to be À Propos De Nice. To sum this film up, it is probably best to turn to Vigo himself:
In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial… the film develops into a generalised view of the vulgar pleasures that come under the sign of the grotesque, of the flesh, and of death. These pleasures are the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.
What is clear is that À Propos De Nice was intended to be a harsh criticism of France, one that called for a revolution to correct the vulgarity that Vigo meant to capture through a montage which contrasted the lifestyles of the rich and the poor that reside within Nice.
Very clearly inspired by the work of Dziga Vertov and other Soviet Montage directors such as Eisenstein, À Propos De Nice is a social city symphony that utilises juxtaposition and abstract camera movement in collaboration with elements of documentary. In such, this narrative compares the luxuries and games that the higher class engage with the work and simple games of the poor, all before thrusting us into a carnival that’s juxtaposed with religious statues. Some of the most striking shots in this narrative would then be the following:
One of the most iconic shots would of course be the first of the naked women. This sits within a sequence that is focused on rich people eating outside and engaging in various activities on the beach. Here, Vigo’s camera is often focused on the materials of these people whilst also sexualising them with a focus on legs – all of which ends on the image of the naked woman that follows a dissolve that sees her change dress many times over.
This sequences then seemingly means to strip down the rich to their most basic and true facade; that being one that is focused on material objects that attract attention to their bodies – often in a sexual manner. This short piece of montage dehumanises the rich to a certain degree (see how Vigo cuts the woman’s face in half with his frame) and is a pretty vulgar means of criticism, one that Vigo probably saw as reflective of the lifestyle of the upper classes.
We see further examples of this unforgiving criticism when Vigo uses the footage of the crocodiles in juxtaposition with a sequence that depicts the rich enjoying a day at the beach and sunbathing…
This piece of montage is repeated in other elements of the film – just like the strip sequence is. Later, we see a woman compared to an emu or ostrich and a man getting his shoe, then bare foot, shined. All of this is in contrast to imagery of the working class, leaving these moments poignant pieces of commentary on social inequality.
The mentioned focus on sexualisation transfers over the carnival sequence that is best captured by the ‘performance’ given by these dancers. This of course extends Vigo’s exploration of escapism in a setting that may have acted as a meeting ground for the rich and poor. In such, he uses this carnival to further depict vulgarity and absurdity through scathing (and somewhat unethical) cinematic language.
One of the most controversial pieces of juxtaposition certainly involves this statue, which, shot with a similar framing to the nude woman, is compared to the carnival sequence and the depicted dancers as the camera moves towards a puddle in its lap.
The use of this dirty water connotes obvious crass and rather gross associations. And with this image as one of the lasting ones, the overall message of À Propos De Nice calls for a complete reversal of lifestyles imbued with a material focus that distracts and promotes (in a particular sense) death. Death as a theme referenced by Vigo implies that the vulgarity captured by this montage refuses to acknowledge the lives of the impoverished, but also of people’s own selves. In such, the core concept of escapism that lies at the heart of this narrative is one with ties to, what Vigo saw to be, a lack of realist existential thought in French society; a consideration of ones own life and purpose. This seems to be why sexuality and flesh are the focus of this film: the idea of propagating oneself and contributing to the continuation of humanity as depicted are manipulated by society into a mere spectacle and distraction. Revolution is then called for not just by Vigo, but by nature, which erodes away at the world surrounding the self-indulgent who blind themselves to death’s knocking.
Whilst there is a debate to be had about the ethics of this film as a documentary, it is undeniable that the design of this montage is incredibly articulate in its condemnation of a society. Remembering that Vigo himself came from poverty and a tumultuous childhood elevates this first film of his as a striking incite into his character, one that is already combining his own experiences and philosophies with an expressive cinematic sensibility focused on realism and radical film forms.
The next film we will be looking at in this series will be Tarus. So, to end this post, what are your thoughts on this film and the subjects we delved into?
The Good Omen – A Longing Journey
Taris – Poetic Documentary
More from me: