9 August 2017 | robert-temple-1
A remarkable account of the short life of filmmaker Jean Vigo
This excellent feature film by Julien Temple was made, according to a tribute made by him in the end credits, because 'Jean Vigo first opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema'. Jean Vigo, who died at the age of only 29 of tuberculosis, made four films in his short life, the first two being minor ones but the other two are considered major classics of the screen. They are ZÉRO DE CONDUITE (1933, a film of 44 minutes) and L'ATALANTE (1934, the year Vigo died just before finishing the film). The latter film is 89 minutes long but was originally released in France with 20 minutes cut out of it; the version existing today was pieced together some years ago from fragments, as Vigo did not live to complete the editing himself. The name l'Atalante is that of a river and canal barge, on which the action takes place. Both of these films have had a seminal influence of the majority of serious Western filmmakers and are revered by historians of the cinema. Julien Temple's film tells the story of the tempestuous life of Vigo, his struggles with health and lack of money, and his romance and marriage with Elizabeth Lezinska, a Polish girl whom he met in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland. She survived him by only four years, as she too had the fatal disease. They had a daughter, Luce Vigo, who died on February 12 of this year in Paris, who acted in two films, appeared in three others as herself, and was a film critic. This film has very good casting. Lezinska is played by the brilliant French actress Romane Bohringer, forever dear to the hearts of all true cinéastes for her magnificent performance in L'APPARTEMENT (THE APARTMENT, 1996, see my review). It was Bohringer, with her mysterious manner and eyes that could be saying anything, one never knows quite what because dark thoughts are always rushing across them, who largely made that film work so well. Here she does the same. Vigo is played by James Frain, and the chemistry between the two is excellent. His performance is also superb. He vacillates wildly between calm reason and manic fits of despair, anger, and creative fever, as he falls in and out of illness, wheelchairs, sickbeds, interspersed with bouts of frenetic and impassioned exertions. The film is a roller-coaster ride of emotions and desperate anxieties as the two hopelessly doomed lovers fight to make films, fight with each other, fight the demons of his parents, fight the disapproval of her parents, and struggle to survive with no money. The fact that Vigo was able to make any films at all was a miracle of fanatical determination and a triumph against impossible odds. Julien Temple chose to make this film about his hero so that the world would know what it takes sometimes to achieve greatness. Now we know out of just what sort of nightmare environment those two classic films arose. From the pits of misery heavenly angels can sometimes arise, though it must be admitted that such occasions are rare, as few of us are strong enough for that. This film (copyrighted 1997 according to the print) was shown on Channel Four in Britain in 1999 and had a modest release on both video tape and DVD, but I do not know whether it was ever cinematically distributed. I believe that few people have seen it. And that is, as the Americans say, 'a cryin' shame'.