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  • Writer's pictureBen Samuel

Jean Vigo (1905-1934)

“to reveal the hidden reasons behind a gesture, to extract from the most mundane person caught off guard, a hidden beauty or a caricature… and do this with such strength that from then onwards the world which before we had lived beside in a state of indifference offers itself to us in spite of itself, beyond its appearance.” - Jean Vigo presenting his film À propos de Nice in Paris in June 1930

Jean Vigo directing the pillow fight sequence from Zéro de conduite (1933)

Below crew members who worked on Zéro de conduite (1933) recall the filming of the famous 'pillow fight' scene, one of the most enduringly anarchic and joyful moments of rebellion ever caught on film.

"Long live rebellion! Liberty or death! Hoist our flag on the school roof! Stand firm with us tomorrow! We'll bombard them with rotten old books, dirty tin cans, smelly boots and all the ammo piled up in the attic!" - Zéro de conduite (1933)

The 'pillow fight' scene from Zéro de conduite (1933)

“What the fuck do you want me to do with this? It’s Sunday-school stuff,” - Jean Vigo on initially reading the scenario for L'Atalante (1934)

Jean Vigo's only feature length film is a beautiful love story that blends documentary, realism and surrealism. The films heart beats with a deeply felt humanity and warmth. It never becomes twee but is instead infused with joy, melancholy and lyricism.

The film is a pure expression of Vigo's humanity and his yearning for life, which is made all the more poignant as Vigo's own life ended so prematurely when he died of tuberculosis in 1934, aged just 29.

Below: Behind the scenes shots of the filming of L'Atalante (1934)

In my favourite scene (below) newly-wed Juliette (Dita Parlo) whilst initially excited by the life onboard the barge grows bored as she is unable to leave and to experience the Paris of her dreams. She aches for sensual experience and imaginative freedom. Then she finds a kindred spirit in the unlikely form of the old sailor Père Jules (Michel Simon). This scene epitomises what is so wonderful about the film. Père Jules strange collection of objects resonates deeply with her and offers her an escape into a world of imaginative possibilities and sensual experience. The objects, collected by Vigo himself from local flea markets in Saint-Ouen and scrap metal market on Boulevard Richard-Lenoirand, become a surreal and tactile expression of memory and desire, at once whimsical and potent in their frank sexuality and their suggestion of danger and exoticism. Just as the scene threatens to become too whimsical Juliette notices the pickled hand of Père Jules dead friend which he has lovingly preserved. The two are framed very closely to one another and the scene has an undeniable sexual frisson, especially when Père Jules cuts his hand and Juliette spontaneously and childishly pops out her tongue to taste the blood.

“Don't you know you can see the one you love in the water?” - L'Atalante (1934)

Here the separated lovers yearn for one another.

Below Eric Rohmer interviews François Truffaut on Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934)

"Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become" - Jean Vigo

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