Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jean Vigo | À Propos de Nice

the living and the dead
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Vigo À Propos de Nice / 1930

On the surface Jean Vigo’s 1930 work, À Propos de Nice, is similar to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a whirlwind tour through various aspects of a city from morning to sunset. In fact, Vigo’s photographer for this film, Boris Kaufman, was the brother of Vertov’s busy cameraman, Mikhail. Like Vertov’s loving presentment of Odessa, Vigo’s valentine to Nice begins in aerial shots, with the almost travelogue-like feeling.

        As the camera descends to the surface, almost like sliding down one of the many palm-trees dotting the Nice landscape, everything shifts as the director focuses on the idle rich, enjoying the casinos and mostly strolling, in full-dress regalia, along the boardwalks and beaches. Dressed to the hilt, these wealthy men and women seem to be impervious that there is a long beach with enticing waters rolling in; rather, they sit in beach cafes, benches, and beach chairs, their suit pants rolled up, long dresses discreetly lifted to catch a few rays of the sun. Mostly they walk, checking out each other as if in an endless Easter Parade. Perhaps it is near Easter, after all, since a carnival, presumably a Mardi Gras event, is in the air. Early on Vigo gives us a glimpse of one of the masks being created for the event. In a sense, the large mask is similar to the numerous masks of paint and haberdashery upon the heads of Nice’s wealthy, walking dead.

      So far, Vigo has only satirized his figures, but he soon begins to point up what that wealth hides, highlighting his silent and unspoken figures against a far more political context. As the camera dips into some of the Nice side streets where peasant women are busy washing their clothes in public fountains, we begin also to spot local teenagers, some of them gathering to play games of chance—a cruder version of the casino games—others simply on the run, bicycling, racing through the streets—a far cry from the careful strollers—in wild abandonment.

     Suddenly it is almost as if Kaufman’s camera has become energized as he now parallels these poor-boy activities with the pleasures of others of the upper class. The beaches are filled with swimmers, sailing vessels and small yachts appear on the horizon, a water-plane dips into the ocean, tennis matches are cross-cut with bocce bowls. The sun shines across the Riviera paradise.

       Just as suddenly the carnival springs into action with a series of images of outlandishly large and grotesque masks. If the wealthy treated Nice cautiously and gingerly, more interested in themselves than in their surroundings, the course youth of Nice go wild, singing and dancing interminably, throwing their torsos into the air to reveal nearly everything. A large part of the film has been given over to pure pleasure, as marchers, singers, dancers, and masked figures go wild. In comparison the cold arcades of the casinos seem like tombs, which Vigo underscores by showing us several gravesites and other city statues surrounded by stone angels. By comparison, the revelers are pure flesh, ready to throw themselves, so it seems, into the hell of an apocalyptic fate, with which Vigo and Kaufman end their short film: a flurry of huge smokestacks and raked fires, hinting at the energy of the workers who, in their labors, allow the city to stay alive. In Vigo’s proposition of Nice, Hell is surely preferable to the heavenly carved casinos and hotels.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2013

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