Jean Vigo was born on April 26, 1905 in Paris. Child with fragile health, he loses his father, a journalist, at the age of 12. Accused of being a spy for the Germans, he will be found strangled in his cell (official thesis : suicide). Due to this traumatism, Jean will have a strong memory of his father, and will transmit in his films the values of courage, love, freedom, contempt of the conventions. After school, he marries “Lydu” (Elizabeth Lozinska) and they move in Nice. Lydu's father offers him a camera, and he makes his first film (1930, 23 mn) : A propos de Nice, a false documentary, but a true lampoon on the misleading appearances of the city.
Back in Paris for medical examinations, Jean Vigo gets quickly weak. In 1932, he shoots Zero de conduite, medium-length film of 42mn, which tells the story of a schoolboys revolt. The film disturbs, the criticisms are bad. The sentence ”Je vous dit merde” (I say shit to you) a son says to his father will make a big deal. During 12 years, the film will be forbidden in the theatres.
The next year, he turns his first and last full-length film : L'Atalante, starring Michel Simon and Dita Parlo. In February 1934, Jean is exhausted and gives the last editing instructions from his bed. But the film escapes him : the producers do not understand the film, they change the title, the music, the editing. Several versions will be screened during 1934 before the death of Jean Vigo, on October 5, 1934 after a long fever. Many restoration attempts will take place afterwards to try to find the spirit of the film that had Jean Vigo in mind.
A version we can consider as definitive was released in 2001 in a superb DVD box set, rightly entitled L'intégrale Jean Vigo : Amazon.fr
Emir Kusturica has very often quoted L'Atalante as one of his favourite films : ”Each time I see a piece of “l'Atalante”, I remain persuaded that it is undoubtedly the best film ever made. I do not know exactly if it is due to its pure qualities or the lapse of time during which the film was finally concluded, or both joined together. The dialogued parts however are not very developed, the sound is limited in quality but its meeting with the image is made under the best possible conditions, despite everything. It is one of first talking movies, you know ! It contains so many different sequences, so many clever framings, the whole at the service of simple emotions. Today, it would be practically impossible to direct. We would have to try an allegory… This film undoubtedly contains the necessary means to understand the human being. It is really my favourite film and I pay him a tribute every day of my life.”
One of the homages Emir paid to him is the scene with the characters under water in Underground : ”the flying bride we see under water… it is a certain form of homage to “L'Atalante” of Jean Vigo. Then, it became something much more important, and everyone dies and derives under water from the river.”