Jean Vigo is one of the great tragic geniuses of cinema history. Like James Dean and Thomas Chatterton, the impact he made on his art form and the extent of his influence is staggering considering the brevity of his career.

If you watched all his films (one full-length feature and three shorts, two them documentaries) back to back it would take less than three hours – but every second would be a joy. Poetic, surreal, passionate, subversive and achingly beautiful, his films have inspired countless directors in the 76 years since his death.

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His personal life was equally fascinating, so much so that it’s amazing Julien Temple’s labour of love, now getting a long-overdue DVD release, is the only biopic. And while it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the enigma, it’s still a striking and heartfelt film in its own right.

In many ways, Temple is the ideal candidate for the job. Best-known as a chronicler of the punk era,(through The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle, The Filth And The Fury and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten) he’s always had a keen eye for the telling image and a freewheeling, artistic approach to cinema, in both its narrative and documentary forms. And he’s always been drawn to outsiders.

Vigo was certainly that. Though born in France, his father was a notorious Spanish anarchist arrested when his son was in his early teens. Young Jean grew up surrounded by bohemians and political activists, with the family under such a degree of surveillance by the authorities that his mother used an assumed name, Jean Sales, when sending him to school. He retained it in adult life, using it to check into a sanatorium in search of a cure for the TB that had plagued him since childhood.

It’s here that the film begins, with Vigo chafing under the cold, authoritarian regime of Dr Gerard (James Faulkner). The only bright spot is fellow patient Lydu Lozinska (Romane Bohringer) a former pianist from an aristocratic Polish family. They fall in love, but even when they manage to leave the sanatorium and Jean tries to find work in the film industry, their relationship is blighted by Jean’s secrecy about his family history, his frustrations at being unable to bring his own projects to the screen – and his continuing ill-health.

Temple is clearly a huge fan, so much so that he assumes a fair bit of prior knowledge about his subject, and cinema between the wars in general. If you haven’t got the Observer’s Book of Tubercular Anarchist Filmmakers in front of you, keeping track of who’s who and exactly which film Jean’s trying to dredge up the funding for or battling the censors over, might be a bit of a chore.

There are also some awkward shifts in tone. At times the film has the slightly plodding, reverential feel of a Doomed Artist Of The Week movie, as Jean and Lydu share passionate embraces or have equally passionate quarrels against unfeasibly picturesque backdrops. At others, Temple indulges his hyper-real pop video director side with bewildering flashbacks and montages. Some of them are strikingly beautiful and evocative, but they remind you that following a straightforward linear narrative was never his strong point – as the high-profile misfires Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy also demonstrated.

But Vigo’s life was one of intensity and drama. And I think he’d have approved of a film about him that threw everything into the mix. At its best, Vigo captures the wonders of an era when the magic lantern was a newborn art form with endless possibilities and the harsh realities of one where young people from not desperately impoverished backgrounds could still be stricken with a debilitating and often fatal disease.

It’s helped immeasurably by some top-notch performances. James Frain, a supporting stalwart probably best known as Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, takes a dream of a leading role by the scruff of the neck. Passionate about his art, contemptuous of the establishment and realising that he might not be around long enough to bring his vision to life, Vigo’s spirit isn’t a million miles away from John Lydon or Joe Strummer and Frain draws out all his creative energy and idealism while also making clear that he probably wasn’t the easiest man in the world to live with.

Bohringer, a reliably classy presence in Euro cinema ever since her breakout role in Mina Tannenbaum, is as striking as ever, capturing Lydu’s mixture of sensitivity and pragmatism perfectly. And there are some star turns in the supporting cast too; Jim Carter has a whale of a time as Jean’s rambunctious seafaring mentor and surrogate father; Diana Quick does wonders in limited screen-time as his estranged but devoted mother. Special mention also for Vernon Dobtcheff, veteran of everything from Fiddler On The Roof to Father Ted, as Lydu’s patrician dad, choosing entirely the wrong moment to give his son-in-law a wedding present...

It’ll be an ideal companion/starter if you want to (re)discover the works of the man himself, and a reminder that, for all his faults, we haven’t seen enough non-documentary work from one of Britain’s most endearingly maverick talents.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2010
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While being treated in a TB sanatorium, aspiring filmmaker Jean Vigo meets a beautiful fellow patient.
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Director: Julien Temple

Writer: Julien Temple, Anne Devlin, Peter Ettedgui

Starring: James Frain, Romane Bohringer, Jim Carter, Diana Quick

Year: 1998

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: France, UK, Japan


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