So how does one account for the work of the great director Jean Vigo? The son of a Catalan anarchist who was murdered in a French prison in 1917, Vigo eventually inherited the family mantle; his first narrative movie, about a student rebellion at a boarding school, was banned as subversive until after World War II; his only full-length movie was destroyed by distributors in search of a genre hit and went unseen in its original form until the late eighties. Dead from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine with only these two features (and a couple of charming documentaries) to his name, Vigo and his work were forgotten for a generation. By the time the New Wave remade his reputation through sustained allusion and acknowledged theft, anarchy was in again. The tag has stuck with the Vigo name since.
But although Vigo certainly had some anarchist in him, the familiar connotations of the word are all wrong. The few movies he left behind are filled with an almost palpable joy, and a sense of fun that is childlike in its imaginative freedom. Charmingly homemade, jury-rigged with low-fidelity special effects, overflowing with children and rabid cats and oceans of water, Vigo's films feed off the ecstatic, uncontrollable elements they also seek to harness. The result is a weird, jazzy jangle, possessing an improvisational quality as it mixes the faked with the real, the orchestrated with the accidental, the profane with the divine. A pile of children at war with their pillows; the feathers flutter and swirl like loose clouds, the small bodies flying through them like mad angels; the camera lingers on one who bends back and leaps, the film slowing as its subject speeds, cartwheeling up into a chair his friends hold aloft for him. Onto a swirling chaos, a tumble of feathers like a screen of smoke, the eccentric vision is imposed. It happens again in L'Atalante, when the visions of a lost lover are seen in the bubbles of air that burst out of a drowning man's mouth.
Both sequences wordlessly achieve a kind of ecstatic force, an emotional charge that shoots right to the heart. Long after specific plot points fade in memory, moments like these remain remarkably fresh. Vigo's first narrative feature, Zero for Conduct, is in fact a collection of such instances. Oddly plotless for a movie about a plot, Zero for Conduct has no hero and only a coterie of caricatures for villains, a midget headmaster and his greasy minions; uncentered, Vigo's camera struggles to keep all of the children in frame, never lingering too long over any character or their intentions. Propelled by its rambunctious subjects, containing all their energy, the film has almost no time for reflection. It is not about how children look at themselves but how they look out at the world, the imaginative will and sense of possibility they bring to it. The opening sequence, shot and edited in a way that lends the action the texture of stop-motion, establishes a cartoonish tone: When later a doodle of a teacher suddenly leaps off the notepad page, fully animated, it seems somehow logical.
While Zero for Conduct is held together by kinetic energy alone, L'Atalante is constructed through somewhat more conventional methods. The movie feels less personal than Zero for Conduct, less eccentric; it has something resembling a plot and characters, and so resembles other movies, while Zero for Conduct stands above all convention. In that movie Vigo tries to hang a frame on a spiraling chaos; L'Atalante, by contrast, is imbued with stillness , gracefully gliding forward like the barge it follows, giving Vigo time to explore the inner worlds of its passengers. A couple marries; she leaves home for the first time, thrilled to see Paris; she's seduced by the world at large; he grows jealous; at the very moment she leaves he abandons her. The canal boat they share seems to take on new shapes, new dimensions, as the lovers' hearts change; the camera finds ever sharper and steeper angles, isolating its subjects at the margins of its frame, articulating the couple's alienation. By the film's end the small, rickety craft we embarked on seems as big as an ocean liner.
It is that kind of grand romantic vessel the hero dives from, into the water where his lost wife told him he might glimpse his true love. Vigo takes us down below the surface, showing us our hero as he writhes, drowning for the sake of the image. Like the drowning man we are afloat, untethered to time; like in a dream, an instant is extended infinitely. Soon after, we see the man in bed, having been rescued from the water; sleeplessly he tosses and turns, twisting in search as he did in the water. Vigo cuts to matching shots of his wife, twisting and turning in the same way, aglow with the same shadow-dappled light as her lost husband. How many restless nights are passing, we do not know: a lifetime of longing compressed into singularly tense instant. In these final filmed minutes of Vigo's career he plays with time as if it were a favorite toy. It is not the joy of invention we feel watching Vigo, but the special joy that comes bearing witness to it.