Big Screen Berkeley: The films of Jean Vigo

The school principal holds forth in Zéro de conduite

Sometime back in the early 1980s, I first encountered French filmmaker Jean Vigo’s meager but memorable output at what was then my home away from home, Berkeley’s UC Theater. Though the prints of Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934) screened at the UC were in horrible condition — splicy, blurry and burdened with awful ‘white-on-faded-grey’ subtitles that were almost impossible to read — the films made a tremendous and lasting impression.

I renewed my acquaintance with Vigo when Turner Classic Movies aired his films around the turn of the century. TCM used prints representing the best efforts of 1990s conservationists to restore the films to watchable condition, and while they did look better that what I’d seen before were still far from perfect.

Now comes excellent news: both films have been digitally restored by Gaumont, and are screening at Pacific Film Archive as part of the series ‘Jean Vigo Regained’. The results are little short of miraculous, and it’s safe to say Vigo’s work will never look better: bar a few missing frames, both films look like they could have been shot yesterday, the subtitles are legible, and Boris Kaufman’s lustrous black-and-white cinematography positively glows.

The 29-year old Vigo died of tuberculosis shortly after L’Atalante’s release, so these films are the extent of his legacy. Dreamy, intriguing and sporadically surreal, they aroused intense controversy in the 1930s; Zéro was famously banned throughout France at the behest of the Catholic Church until after the Second World War.


Screening at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17, Zéro de conduite is the director’s autobiographical tale of rebellion at a boarding school. Despite its lengthy ban, the film became a key influence on the nouvelle vague, with Francois Truffaut paying it direct tribute in 1959’s The 400 Blows. The film’s climactic ‘rooftop’ sequence also informs Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 fable If!, and it’s not hard to imagine the film influencing Yves Roberts’ War of the Buttons, which would win the Prix Jean Vigo in 1962.

P.E. Salles Gomes’ essential book Jean Vigo (University of California Press, 1971) includes the author’s list of “key words from the articles on Zéro de conduite published in 1933…: hatred, violent, destructive, rancorous, bitter, wretched, coarse, noxious, harsh … anguished, confused, bad, passionate, daring, vicious, subversive, unpleasant, obsessed, troubled, erotic, scatological, excessive, satirical, sordid, exaggerated, insulting, pitiful, relentless, sad, uncouth, provocative, exasperating, cruel, perverse”. In retrospect, most of these adjectives are an accurate reflection of why the film was both as controversial and as influential as it has proven to be.

Dita Parlo and Jean Daste in L’Atalante

Set aboard a river barge, L’Atalante (screening at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 23) is the more accessible of Vigo’s films and stars Jean Daste and Dita Parlo as Jean and Juliette, a newly married couple living on the water with second mate Jules (Michel Simon), a cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre, one of Zéro de conduite’s naughtiest schoolboys), and a lot of cats.

The plot is paper thin: the young couple are deeply in love, but Jean is jealous beyond reason; when a cheeky traveling salesman flirts with Juliette, the couple are temporarily separated but reunited before the final fade. Never mind: the film is beautiful to behold, its sepulchral, foggy atmosphere ably captured by Kaufman, who would go on to win an Academy Award for On the Waterfront and shoot other Hollywood classics as Baby Doll and 12 Angry Men.

Is it an overstatement to suggest that any cinema enthusiast’s education is incomplete without seeing both of these films? I don’t think so, and even if you have seen them before – perhaps you and I were in that same UC audience back in the day – you owe it to yourself to see these immaculate restorations.