Historians of cinema have pointed out the influence of Dziga Vertov on Jean Vigo’s documentary A propos de Nice (Concerning Nice, 1930). The richness and spontaneity of its imagery, the easiness by which objects, animals and characters are shown, and the fast-cutting editing technique appear to confirm such a claim. But A propos de Nice, as it has come down to us, is a shorter version of the film originally screened, drastically cut at the behest of the censors of the age, who found several sequences in “bad taste”. The conceptual elements of Vigo’s documentary actually belong to social realism, and should be traced to the work and writings of Sergei Eisenstein.
A propos de Nice was intended first as a dialectical response to the perceived formalism of the city-symphony genre. Vigo, very much under the influence of Boris Kaufman, Vertov’s brother and the cinematographer of the film, wanted to expose the bright and dark sides of Nice’s apparent prosperity. The principles of the “montage of attractions”, expounded by Eisenstein in his early years, is applied to several sequences of a A propos de Nice: for examples, an arrogant woman wearing a fur coat is compared to an Ostrich, an echo of a celebrated sequence in October (1928) in which a bureaucrat of the Provisional Government is compared to the proud image of a peacock. In another sequence of Vigo’s documentary, conceited members of the bourgeoisie seated at cafes on the Promenade des Anglais are compared to a bask of crocodiles. But Vigo doesn’t limit his creativity to the presentation of humorous correspondences between animals and members of the privileged classes. The director reformulates the concept of montage in a creative way by presenting vanity in its plain humanity. In what has come to be regarded as the film’s most emblematic sequence, Vigo presents a beautiful young woman in a series of new, fashionable clothes, until spectators finally see her naked. He stages a further variation on this sequence later on, when a shoe polisher ends up polishing the bare feet of his costumer.
A propos de Nice was presented by Vigo himself as a social film, a call for a revolution that never happened:
In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial… the film develops into a generalized view of the vulgar pleasures that come under the sign of the grotesque, of the flesh, and of death. These pleasures are the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution. (1)
And although the primary inclination of Vigo was Marxist, in agreement with the ideological tendencies of his age, the film remains an exceptional portrait of indolence in modern society. Almost 100 years later we still live in a world increasingly affected by war, unemployment and poverty, a reality that nonetheless remains discreetly hidden under the carpet by the illusion of a global democratic society, where most people have access to the internet, and where an overestimated middle class is entertained by lavish sports competitions.
Vigo’s documentary has been certainly overshadowed by the subsequent achievements of Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), but the primary reason for its dismissal is aesthetic. A propos de Nice contradicts a particular grammar of cinema that stipulates the protocol and boundaries of class representation. The lavishness of film production in Hollywood and Mumbai submit to the ideological idealism of contemporary society, where servants and beggars are generally invisible. And with very few exceptions, such as the output of Italian neo-realism, of the Cinema Novo and some mainstream comedy, filmmaking is more inclined to present reality better than it is rather than as it is. The lavish Hollywood style has become dogma at film festivals as well. For example, in La Leçon de cinema d’Abbas Kiarostami (2004), a documentary about the making of Kiarostami’s Bad ma ra khahad bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999), viewers were surprised to learn how much money and time the celebrated Iranian director spent cleaning a room that was “too dirty” to be used as a setting for his film. As he put it, his story was not about poverty. Nevertheless, most films from the silent era, including several by Chaplin and Keaton, display a coarseness that is rarely swallowed by contemporary audiences. In 1930 Vigo didn’t have qualms about presenting the social indolence and presumption of the French city of the well-to-do. The arrogance and extravagance of the wealthy are contrasted with the humbleness of women who, while carrying their babies, beg for a penny along the beach. In another moving sequence we watch female peasants picking up flowers with delicacy. Those very same flowers are immediately shown in the hands of a laughing crowd, who in the euphoria of carnival throw them at the faces of passersby. The sequence ends morbidly, with images of decomposed flowers trampled on the street.
Morbidity is a theme that Vigo develops throughout the film. First, by showing two small puppets that step down from a toy train, a cartoonish representation of a bourgeois couple, and are later on dragged as gaming chips by a croupier across a casino board. This striking sequence then dissolves to the foam of waves in the sea. Waves, in fact, remain a leitmotif of mortality throughout the film. This metaphysical metaphor gains greater intensity towards the end of the film, when Vigo intercuts images of statues of angels and mausoleums in an abandoned cemetery with the sensuous movements of several young dancers, mostly female. This sequence echoes the first of the film, in which the buildings and palaces of Nice are presented upside down. The early images of waiters cleaning tables, and of staff cleaning the streets of Nice acquire a sinister tone. Spectators attend to an ancient ritual in which car races, tennis games, sailing boats and bowling games are mere distractions for an imminent end – a compelling certainty at this point in time, as practically all the subjects of a A propos de Nice have already died. The fear and awe that the Germans of Tacitus displayed towards the Roman palaces and temples, which they saw as plain mausoleums, is revived in Vigo’s brisk montage.
The son of an anarchist Spanish rebel shot in prison, Vigo reminds spectators in A propos de Nice of their inevitable destiny, a stance that was openly rejected upon the premiere of the film: “In a sequence which has disappeared, ‘a shot of an old woman, apparently decomposing although still alive’ is followed by, as a critic complained, ‘an allusion in bad taste: a hole dug in a cemetery’” (2). The exiting joys of wealth and excess underline the social contradictions, iniquities and injustices of our milieu. At the same time, from a metaphysical perspective, they will always look vane under the omnipresent shadow of death.
A propos de Nice (1930 France 25 mins)
Dir: Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman Scr: Jean Vigo Phot: Boris Kaufman Ed: Boris Kaufman, Jean Vigo