Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jean Vigo's 1931 short about swimming champion Jean Taris is a masterful piece of filmmaking, massively influential in its day and still well worth the attention of filmmakers looking to develop their art. A silent piece with no captions after the introductory credits, it relies purely on visual impact. Vigo shows an impressive understanding of his subject, capturing subtleties of the swimming experience that would be lost on the average person.

Despite the technical challenges it presented at the time, swimming seems a natural subject for a filmmaker working in black and white with (by modern standards) low grade film. The brightness of the air, the darness of the water, and Taris' swimmer's pallor interact to create dramatic visual images. Vigo seems as interested in the water itself as in the champion. By focusing on the way it moves he put across the power of Taris' stroke far more effectively than he could do by observing the swimmer's body alone. Indeed, Taris' slender build might not give an immediate impression of power. Vigo shows us how, in his coat and hat, he appears quite unremarkable. Yet for anyone familiar with the sport, scenes where he idles along the bottom of the pool are an impressive display of strength.

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Though we spend nine minutes watching one man in the water, the film never drags, shifting its focus between different activities and highlighting details like the breath control vital to winning races. Vigo's inventive techniques keep it fresh and some sequences, like the reversed dive, are startling to watch even today. Underwater tumbling has the quality of ballet, glorying in the potential of the human body. It's easy to see how this made a splash on release and it's well worth seeking out now.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2012
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An experimental short film about Thirties French swimming champion Jean Taris.

Director: Jean Vigo

Writer: Jean Vigo

Starring: Jean Taris

Year: 1931

Runtime: 10 minutes

Country: France


Southside 2012

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