I was introduced to the work of the French film director Jean Vigo via the excellent documentary series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey from the Scottish film maker Mark Cousins. Vigo only directed three short films and one feature length movie before dying from tuberculosis at the age of 29. It was not until his death that his work was re-evaluated and he would go on to be cited as a significant influence on the Nouvell Vague movement of the late 1950s. His debut was the document short, A Propos De Nice.
In the 1920s there was a fashion among film makers for producing a day in the life type shorts on a variety of subjects. A popular subject was features on towns and cities that would double up as an advertisement for the tourism industry. On the face of Jean Vigo’s film is just such an item until you are a little bit closer at some of the images he chooses to highlight. There is a thread of social commentary running through the piece in the style of the early Soviet documentaries. Everything is communicated through images, with no place cards to point the viewer in a certain direction.
The film begins with an ariel shot of the city showing off its beachfront and well ordered streets. This is inter-cut with figures representing a couple arriving by train and almost immediately getting swept up on to a roulette table and being discarded. Then swiftly back to an image of the beach front.
The whole of the twenty minute running time is full of these contrasts in a film that aims to show the difference between the image that a city wishes to portray and the reality of the situation for the people who have to make it function. For every shot of waves splashing onto the beach we see workers washing floors. There is emphasis put on the palatial buildings with their pristine fascias and palm tree frontage. They are shot from angles (usually looking upwards) that accentuate the architecture and the splendor of the view.
What Vigo is showing is the gulf between the well to do tourists, who have few cares in the world, and the working classes who service the rich. For them, the days involve a succession of tennis games, boating, relaxing to the point of sleep and promenading. The day ends with a carnival procession highlighting that life appears to be just one big party. For the employees we see what is required behind the scenes. Rather than stunning surroundings they live in cramped and shabby conditions. Their view is not of sea fronts but rather of washing hanging on the line from the apartment opposite.
Overall, an accomplished and thought provoking documentary short from a skilled film maker reinforcing the reputation his work now has.
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