Jean Vigo – A Passion for Life Undimmed

“Jean Vigo opened my eyes to the cinema. In telling my version of his story, I hope in some way to repay my debt to him, and encourage others to find inspiration in his films.” – Julian Temple

James Frain as Jean Vigo

Cinema’s current climate is undoubtedly at the mercy of new and exciting technologies, yet the international success of The Artist and Hugo bears witness to a dynamic nostalgia in audiences and filmmakers. Fascination with the magic found in early cinema is nothing new and there is no one more magical than Jean Vigo. His 1934 masterwork L’Atalante has just been re-released by the British Film Institute. Having made a grand total of four films, any self- respecting cineaste knows that Vigo is still, and always will be, one of greatest filmmakers of all time, with both L’Atalante and Zéro de conduite, in particular, standing out as exceptional examples of the craft. It wasn’t for nothing that legendary film preservationist and archivist Henri Langlois went on record to state: ‘Vigo is cinema incarnate in one man.’

It is with this in mind that Park Circus wishes to reintroduce you to Julien Temple’s 1998 biopic Vigo – Passion for Life. What makes Vigo’s frustratingly limited filmography intriguing is the tragic backdrop of his life. Temple’s passion for Vigo the man and his art shine through.

The film begins in a tuberculosis sanatorium surrounded by a beautiful mountainous landscape in the south of France. The son of a neglectful mother and a Catalan anarchist father (named Almereyda, an anagram of ‘y’a la merde’, literally meaning ‘there is shit’) Vigo’s lonely childhood is laid bare in Temple’s film as we witness the early stages of an illness that will become a fatal condition that ultimately affected his filmmaking. What follows is an intense, romantic and energetic account of Vigo and of those around him. From his brittle yet passionate relationship and marriage with the wonderfully named Lydu (pronounced lee-doo) to his collaborators Boris Kaufman (cinematographer who later won an Oscar for On the Waterfront and who is the brother of Dziga Vertov who made the influential Man with a Movie Camera) and composer Maurice Jaubert, the film’s evocation of the bohemian existence is both romantic, nostalgic and immensely fitting.

The magic behind the camera

Vigo’s life was fraught with the difficulties of containing and treating his disease yet during this film and his life there was an unerring passion that can only inspire cinephiles and filmmakers alike. Lindsay Anderson, Bernardo Bertolucci, François Truffaut and Jean Renoir (whose work Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) stars the anarchic and effervescent Michel Simon that later starred in Vigo’s L’Atalante) have all been influenced by Jean Vigo. More precisely, Vigo was the main precursor to poetic realism and had a posthumous influence on France’s New Wave cinema, as themes of rebellion and youth were picked up again.

There are many reasons to fall in love with the cinema of Jean Vigo and ultimately it is his slim oeuvre that stands as his true testaments. Where Temple’s work succeeds is in his warm portrayal of the director and his life’s story and in his representation of the magic Vigo created behind the camera, and in the editing suite. Take one scene from Zéro de conduite, a film set in a boarding school where authority is challenged and youthful playfulness is wonderfully personified by children Vigo hand-picked from the streets of Paris. The scene has the boys start a pillow fight in their dormitory. Kaufman then plays back the film in order to create a dream-like sequence that stays with you forever. Composer Jaubert accentuates the trance-like scene by playing the music backwards at the same time. This fun, innovative and influential scene in cinema history is wisely represented by Temple in the film.

Jean Vigo died from rheumatic septicemia at the age of just 29 on 5 October 1934. He leaves a legacy of films that reflect a young imagination full of ideas and innovation. There are not many who managed to bring so much magic to the screen and through such a personal yet immediately relatable message. Vigo – Passion for Life stands as an excellent reminder of a very individual talent whose passion for the magic of cinema is what we at Park Circus remain dedicated to.

Vigo – Passion for Life is available to book theatrically and is available on DVD from Amazon.

The links in this article relate to titles available for theatrical booking through Park Circus.


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