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A propos the Puppeteer – Jean Vigo and the Cinema of Automata

Michael Wutz


Le présent article se propose d’examiner deux principaux éléments du cinéma de Jean Vigo peu étudiés jusqu’à présent : l’usage de poupées, mannequins et automates qui jouent un rôle central dans la mise en scène de Vigo et son statut de cinéaste de passage négociant le changement du cinéma muet au cinéma sonore. L’auteur soutient que les poupées de Vigo fonctionnent souvent comme des figurations suggestives du désir, de la consommation capitaliste et de la pensée automatique qui permettent d’analyser le comportement de leurs équivalents humains ainsi que les systèmes politique et économique qu’ils habitent. De plus, Vigo infuse ces associations avec un fort sous-texte anti-colonial de répression et d’exploitation en soulevant le voile des dimensions politiques tacites du régime colonial français, de l’idolâtrie moderniste du primitivisme et de la libération sexuelle en vogue dans les années 1920 en France. Enfin, le surchargement symbolique des poupées de Vigo est réinscrit dans les synergies audiovisuelles de ses films. Situés entre silence et son, les films de Vigo développent un registre d’intonation complexe qui s’attaque à l’écologie médiatique et, de fait, interroge le statut du cinéma comme spectacle sonore. Ses poupées et ses automates ne peuvent être entendus non comme des résidus du cinéma muet, mais plutôt comme des mannequins sots qui résistent à la nouvelle commercialisation du son ainsi que le rétrécissement des possibilités esthétiques craint (du moins) par l’avant-garde. En tant que corps sans voix, ils vocalisent leur cinématicité intrinsèque non par le son, mais par leur matérialité déformée, leurs faces grotesques et leur mobilité instable.

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  • 1 Temple’s concluding chapter “Visions of Vigo” surveys the quotations, remakes, and portraits (esp. (...)

1 As the patron saint of the French New Wave, Jean Vigo and his films have long been in the viewfinder of cinematic discourse. Almost forgotten after his early death at the age of 29, the son of famed anarchist Miguel Almeyerda was quickly elevated by the auteurs of the 1960s into the figurehead of their own cinematic and political vision. Resurrecting Vigo’s slender body of work and variously quoting his films in their own, such as Francois Truffaut in 400 Blows or Jean-Luc Godard in his historical video works, they helped create the myth of Vigo as a hunger artist living from hand to mouth, the poète maudit of modern French cinema turned into a cause célèbre of independent film making1.

  • 2 See Simon, The Films of Jean Vigo (esp. 1-10), for a useful summary of Vigo’s major influences.

2 Such genealogical thinking has produced a sizeable body of studies that have located Vigo’s films within the fields of modern cinema, literature, and the arts, both within France and Europe more generally. The usual suspects here are Vigo’s relation to the French avant-garde, an emerging tradition of documentary film, and the prominence of Soviet theories of montage and their left-wing politics that were favorites with the cinema of the Popular Front in the 1930s. The formal and thematic hallmarks of Vigo’s films, such as their often oneiric sequences, their experimental editing and stop- and slow-motion camera work, as well as their concern with resisting authority and a corresponding celebration of ludic energy (often embodied in childlike play) indeed centrally partake of modernism’s catalogue of innovations2.

3I want to follow in the tradition of these studies by bending their critical focus into a direction that has received little attention to date: Vigo’s use of puppets, manikins, and automata as a central part in his mise-en-scène, and Vigo’s status as a transitional film maker negotiating the threshold from silence to sound. Exceeding their shock value as, quite literally, stuffed shirts enriching scenic design in the manner of surrealist practice, Vigo’s puppets, I argue, especially in Zero for Conduct (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), often function as figurations of desire, capitalist consumption, and automated – that is, authoritarian – thinking, and hence comment on the behavior of their human counterparts and the political and economic system they inhabit. In Vigo’s (and Boris Kaufman’s) first film, À propos de Nice (1930), these associations are further inflected with a strong anti-colonial subtext of repression and exploitation. If the manikins walking in the film’s central parade celebrate innocent exuberance and play, Vigo might be seen to complicate the organizers’ intentions by laying bare possible unspoken political dimensions of the carnival. While jouissant on the surface, the grotesque deformation of supersized negroid faces invites an, in effect, anti-colonial reading, whereby the majestic affluence of the Empire is upheld by the human and material resources abroad, just as the erotic celebration of African female bodies takes aim at the modernist cult(ure) of primitivism and sexual liberation in 1920s France. At the same time, by spotlighting the puny human carriers of the supersized puppets, Vigo, I further contend, also points to the invisible underclass at home – the laboring masses upholding the savoir vivre of the bourgeoisie. As he, in fact, observed in one of his few theoretical statements on film, the grotesque deformations foregrounded in the carnival of À propos de Nice “are the last spasms of a society so little conscious of itself that it is enough to sicken you and to make you into an accomplice of a revolutionary solution” (“Toward a Social Cinema,” in Abel II: 63).

4The symbolic surcharge of Vigo’s puppets is reinscribed in the audio-visual synergies of his films. Situated on the cusp of film’s transition from a silent to a sound medium, Vigo is as innovative in his montage of sound, and sound and image, as he has been acknowledged to be in his montage of images alone. Whether in the still silent À propos de Nice, in which music underwrites the image, or in his sound films La Natation par Jean Taris (1931), Zero for Conduct, and L’Atalante, where sound, dialogue and music form a complex register of intonation, Vigo variously juxtaposes sounds within one another, or he juxtaposes soundscape to setting to reach for new audio-visual combinations. Such a dialectic is partly the effect of the French preference for son direct in the 1920s and 30s – the simultaneous recording of sound with the image (much in contrast to the sound practices in Hollywood at the time) – but partly as well an effect of the enlarged media ecology of modernism. If cinema during sound conversion “incorporated conventions borrowed from the new electronic media of radio and the electric gramophone, at a time when these conventions had just taken form” (O’Brien 9), Vigo, I argue, especially in L’Atalante, puts these conventions to innovative use by interrogating the status of cinema as a synch-sound spectacle. Vigo’s puppets and automata, in that sense, can be understood not as convenient leftovers of silent-era film-making, but as dumb dummies resisting the emerging commercialization of sound and its perceived narrowing of aesthetic possibilities. As bodies without voice, Vigo’s stuffed shirts “speak for themselves” precisely because they are not live actors and don’t even pretend any illusion of verisimilitude. On the contrary, it is their contorted materiality, facial grotesqueness and jerky mobility that vocalizes their inherent cinematicity without the detour through the technology of sound.

L’Homme Machine of Modernism

  • 3 Vigo’s principal cinematographer Boris Kaufman, of course, was Dziga Vertov’s younger brother, and (...)

5Vigo’s sustained use of puppets, manikins, and automata in his films is intimately linked to the European avant-garde. Documentary city films such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927), Eugène Deslaw’s March of the Machines (1928), or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), among others, circulated within the coteries of emergent art-film culture and no doubt entered Vigo’s visual vocabulary. Such films did not always sport pirouetting pierrots or animated automata – though shots of manikins are common – but as poetic studies of industrial machinery they sensitized an imagination open to mechanical embodiment, urban energy, and the cinematic potential of silent and self-consciously non-mimetic machine-humans3.

  • 4 See Vigo, “Toward a Social Cinema,” in Abel II: 61.
  • 5 “Like most admirers of Entr’acte, Vigo had not passed up the opportunity of filming a funeral in sp (...)

6Vigo’s exposure to surrealist films filled his tool box with cutting-edge techniques and images as well. He repeatedly commented on Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un chien andalou (1929), and he couldn’t help but overhear Breton and his ilk shouting their manifestoes from the roofs of Paris4. Slow, fast, and reverse motion, animation, dissolves, and stop-motion shots are among the tricks of the trade Vigo shares with his surreal brethren, and they give his films an often playful and dreamlike quality aimed at undermining bourgeois norms of authority and order. Vigo also admired René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), to which he alludes in the funeral scene in À propos de Nice5. Made as a filler between the acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche, the film also fills the space between human and non-human animation by portraying a ballet of dummies standing at attention at a shooting booth, their negroid faces alternately inflating or deflating like attenuating heartbeats. But whether as a commentary on the bloodshed of World War I, the Parisian madness with all things black, or a play on the word dummy itself – check all that apply – Entr’acte previews the coming attractions in Vigo’s manikins complete with a political message.

  • 6 For “the history of dissident puppetry in Europe,” including the guignol, see Blumenthal, esp. 171- (...)

7Vigo no doubt also drew on two pre-cinematic traditions within French culture that seem antithetical in their intent, but, occurring as they do at about the same historical moment, are fundamentally synergistic in their result: the automata of Enlightenment philosophy and the guignol. Named after the major marionette in a late 18th-century puppet show, the guignol soon became a popular source of entertainment in towns that catered to children and adults alike. Paris, in Vigo’s childhood, had (and continues to have) dozens of puppet theaters that drew on working class themes and characters for both their figures and scenarios, and the sharp wit and humor of Guignol and his troupe, often in their struggle with dumb dummies of authority and power, made puppetry a cultural institution6. For a future artist centrally concerned with resisting authority and rhapsodizing the free spirit of childhood, early experiences in the puppet theater – to which most every child in Paris was exposed – likely left lasting impressions that would be recalled in crucial moments of film making. Several of Vigo’s puppets – such as the puffed-up shirts in Zero for Conduct – strongly resemble the tradition of guignol in terms of their appearance alone, and the mapping of impoverished stiffs and privileged fat cats, underdogs and big shots, is reinscribed in the theater of Vigo’s films. The working class audience of the original puppet shows resonate in Vigo’s Leftist sympathies and in his choice of milieus and themes, and the spirit of ebullience and wit characterizing his films reflect a sensibility closely tied to the free play of puppetry.

8Enlightenment automata represent, from a conceptual point of view, the opposite of ebullience and wit, in that they embody eighteenth-century notions of rationality and perfection. Emerging out of the mechanical discourse of the Cartesian meditations, thinkers and tinkerers throughout Europe begin to reflect on the conditions human cognition and to engineer life-like marionettes in an attempt to replicate organic life. In an age that believed in the integration of microcosmic fractals within macrocosmic wholes, such miniatures were designed to express the benevolent brilliance of divine design and the balance of an all-encompassing vision. As Minsoo Kang put it, “the concept signified much more than an ingenious piece of mechanical craft. It was used as a heuristic device to illustrate the nature of the body, the state, and even the entire universe constructed by an engineer-God, functioning as the central emblem of the mechanistic cosmos of the classical Enlightenment” (175). Indeed, in the same manner that the, seemingly frictionless, interpenetration of all parts into one, seemingly seamless, whole suggested divine ingenuity, so the elegant intricacy of animated automata signaled the ingenuity of their human makers. What is more, the display of such automata – such as Jacques Vaucanson’s famous duck or Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s writing man – at carnivals and courts became public spectacles of the first order that bedazzled prince and pauper alike.

  • 7 Schaffer has shown how automata “were never merely metaphors of the social order. As commodity feti (...)

9Equally important, it was also the image of the automaton as a representation of in-humanity and dependence that, for all its suggestions of self-determination, appealed to Vigo. If Enlightenment thinkers were fond of seeing automata as embodiments of autonomy, Vigo, with the hindsight of two centuries, inverts that tradition by seeing them as figurations of in-capacity and in-agency, much like the human counterparts they are meant to incarnate. Kang has noted that “the eighteenth century notion of the mechanical being as a representation of humanity lacking in freedom, self-will, and originality is one of the most powerful and enduring legacies of the late Enlightenment to the modern imagination” (167), and Vigo is following in that tradition. His l’homme machine may, in the spirit of the Age of Reason, be embedded within a superstructural whole, and interlock with the metaphoric cogwheels encasing them, but such integration produces little independent reasoning and acting. On the contrary, representing humans functioning within the system of modern consumer culture, Vigo’s automata are what their name implies: programmed and dependent extensions of a system which, in theory, they should be able to reflect on and, if need be, resist7.

  • 8 O’Brien has noted that “whereas the emphasis in 1930s Hollywood was on sound’s intelligibility with (...)

10But whether as obedient subjects or unthinking desiring machines – doughy bodies or jerky androids – it was the proto-cinematic magic of such figure(in)s that bedazzled Vigo. As a filmmaker who never forgot the child within, his ludic imagination must have been mesmerized by the bobbing heads and toggling torsos moving on mechanical platforms, bodies often twisting or shaking to the mellifluous melodies coming from the music box below. Such visual riches pulled all the stops of the mechanical world and yielded something like cinema pure. For an auteur-in-the-making, such puppets contained an inherent cinematicity that offered rich eye candy without necessarily requiring sound or speech. They provided him with a means to build upon the aesthetic traditions of silent film from which he emerged, without negating the possibility of exploring the formal promises of sound8.

Of Rubber Horses and Megaphones

  • 9 See Seltzer for a full treatment of this dialectic in American (pre)modernist discourse, and Guido (...)

11Not every film in Vigo’s oeuvre sports machined humans in equal measure. Their appearance depends on what the shooting script was calling for, what range of innovation Vigo was able to play with, and sheer contingency – timing and what the crew happened to stumble upon during production. Thus La Natation par Jean Taris (1931), Vigo’s short film about France’s star swimmer at the time, was a commissioned work that left little wiggle room for experimentation offering, as it did, visual instruction in, well, swimming. And even though the film features playful moments of slow-motion and reverse-motion photography, which give it a distinctly surrealist touch, the film is made without explicit puppets. Nevertheless, the film’s conceptual dialectic between the disciplined body of a swimmer and the random splashing of children (and a heavyset adult) – between competitive swimming and leisurely bathing – well illustrates Vigo’s lifelong interest in the body and the effects of physical discipline on this very body9.

12Consider, for example, the way the film intercuts instructional segments about proper forms of swimming and breathing with shots of leisurely floating in the water. Taris’ demonstration of precise technique is visually undercut by children splashing in a pool without giving a hoot. The swimmer’s body gliding speedily through the water is juxtaposed to the circle of floating and playing children; rest and leisure are privileged over competition and speed. What is more, even the playful cut to a rather blubbery adult swimmer bobbing in the water contrasts the precision of Taris’ machined strokes. The swimmer’s torpedo-like backstrokes take a visual backseat to the adult floating on his back, the one embodying the fluidity of a dolphin, the other the inertia of a manatee. Most importantly, perhaps, when the children are playing with an inflatable rubber horse, Vigo sneaks in what we might call the floatation version of a puppet. Contrasting Taris’ sculpted torso, the water toy epitomizes what is at stake in re-engineering human bodies through industrialized processes: their transformation from sites of joy relishing their immersion within primal elements into performance machines working with efficiency and purpose – a transformation from leisure to labor.

  • 10 In Taris, “les performances du célèbre nageur ressemblent aux contorsions d’une grenouille lorsque (...)

13Significantly, the form of the film masquerading as an instructional documentary speaks in itself to its anti-mechanical and –performative theme. Slow-motion and extreme slow-motion underwater shots feature playful actions and sensuous flow, rather than the analysis of movement for which they are, in theory, ideally suited. The movements of the Olympian swimmer “resemble the contortions of a frog which Vigo shows as close-ups, underwater shots, and when he foregrounds the mouth which, without grimacing, breaks through the surface of the water to breathe” (Perrin 20, my translation)10. And Taris himself, while getting his share of strokes in this film about strokes, is curiously complicit in Vigo’s project. At one point, after having demonstrated his mastery of styles, he lounges at the bottom of the pool as if undermining the film’s didacticism and his status as a star. And at the end, when a high-speed reverse shot takes him out of water and he crosses the water fully dressed, his Christ-like miracle is as much tongue in cheek as is the miracle of filmic editing.

  • 11 The original French version of the opening stanzas are as follows: “Maman les petits bateaux/ Qui v (...)

14This concluding parody of semi-godhood connects to Taris’ soundtrack, which, much like the film’s form, does double duty as instructional voice-over and interrogator of the formal status of sound itself. The film opens with the well-known nursery rhyme “Mamam les petits bateaux” and registers Vigo’s general affinity for the spirit of childhood, just as it demonstrates his extraordinary ear for popular ditties. Responding to singing children’s voices, “Mama, do the little boats on the water have legs?”, a maternal voice replies, “Of course, silly, or else they wouldn’t go”11. This exchange comments en avance on Taris’s miraculous feat with his feet, but also sets the (sound)stage for a film more concerned with questioning notions of body-building and proper technique, rather than reaffirming them. Taris does offer brief explanations, and the film aims at something like verisimilitude by playing the sound of splashing water during the swimmer’s demonstrations and by featuring the noises of an invisible crowd at a competition. However, image and sound often drift apart to create audio-visual dissonance. Taris notes that “Like a fish, water is the swimmer’s element. There are a few movements to learn, but first get in the water. You can’t learn to swim in your room”; at that point, the camera cuts to an overhead shot of a swimmer dry-swimming in a room, while lying prostrate on a chair, with a lifesaver next to her. Similarly, the film’s formally most appealing slow-motion and underwater shots don’t have any sound at all, as if – in keeping with Vigo’s aesthetic of silent puppetry – letting them speak for themselves.

  • 12 See Gomes 71. Vigo may be drawing on Eisenstein’s similar preference for silent film (Film Form 257 (...)
  • 13 The crispness of the voice amplified by the megaphone is such that it magnifies an up to this point (...)

15This dialectic between image and sound, and a sometime preference for silence points to Vigo’s nuanced view vis-à-vis the newly emerging medium. Largely quiet in the aesthetic debates regarding sound, Vigo noted that filmic form will come into its own when people “dispense with knowing whether the cinema should be silent a priori, or as sonorous as an empty jug, or as 100 percent talking as our war veterans, in three-dimensional relief, in color, with smells, etc.” (“Social Cinema” 60). For Vigo, cinematic form should be contingent on purpose, and not just be one or the other, or both, by virtue of their technical feasibility. And while his list suggests his belief in the cognitive power of stand-alone images, he reserves the right for in-tonation if that is what a film is calling for12. Significantly, Taris’ soundtrack switches almost immediately from verisimilitude to self-conscious formal gesturing. The invisible source of the brass music audible on the soundtrack extends visually in the cut to a sportscaster bellowing into a megaphone. Shaped like a horn, the megaphone suggests the cones of trumpet and trombone, and hence fuses image and sound through its very form. What is more, as a technology of amplification, the megaphone literally vocalizes speech and, equally literally, announces the film’s status as a sound film, just as the speaker’s “Hallo, Hallo” welcomes Vigo (and the viewers) into the world of sound-film making13. Vigo appropriately turns the horn directly into the camera and zooms in on its funnel at an angle that captures the speaker’s mouth in both the film’s frame and through the narrowing cone itself. (The funnel functions as an inverted iris focusing the viewer’s eyes – a carryover of Vigo’s silent-film aesthetic – overlaid with the image of a narrowing ear duct). Speech and speaking apparatus coalesce into an (surrealist) iconography of horns and ducts that advertise the film’s sound.

Esprit de Corps, Esprit de Coeur

16Unlike Taris, which was made as an instructional manual for swimming, Zero for Conduct is a feature about boys rebelling against the strictures of educational institutions. But both films, each in their own way, resist the (de)formation of young human spirits into obedient bourgeois subjects, and the disciplining of their bodies into efficient citizens of the state. Correspondingly, both films are imbued with a spirit of resistance and play, which is reinscribed into their very form. Stretches of verisimilitude are punctured by nodes of un-reality or magic, suggesting that filmic form, like youthful spirit, cannot be contained within generic strait jackets. More importantly for our discussion, unlike Taris, Zero had only few productive restrictions and afforded Vigo significantly more room to explore the cinematic potential of puppetry and sound. Combined with his autobiographical investment – the film retells his painful experiences in boarding school – Vigo combines bodies, music, and papier-mâché into a unique chef d’œuvre.

  • 14 Notably, Vigo at one point “tried to find out about the possibilities of obtaining some small job o (...)

17Zero is inhabited by a virtual family tree of puppets, both human and inhuman, wooden and bronze, paper and paste – but always a reflection on (and of) their human counterparts. And as with all generic hybrids, which make genetics difficult to identify, Vigo’s puppets have their parental origins in Surrealism and sculpting, the guignol and caricature, with a pinch of Hollywood thrown in. Most prominently, it is the Headmaster himself, whose dictatorial regime oversees the institution, who embodies Vigo’s archetypal human puppet (which is one reason why French authorities pulled the film off the shelves until 1946). Moving stiffly and with an automated gait, he is a walking embodiment of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Napoleon combined, thrusting out his chest in imperial fashion. His historical counterpart sits, cast in bronze, on his desk to reminiscent of his thirst for power. Even his extension in the class room, a character called Beanpole, transforms from lanky individual into Napoleon when teacher Huguet caricatures him on his desk in a trick shot reminiscent of Georges Méliès. Vigo presents both as apparatchiks of the state regimenting the free play of the imagination14. What is more, much as they are wannabees of disciplinary power, their (quite literally) inflated French names – Surveillant général Bec-de-gaz and Surveillant Pète-sec – takes the wind out of their imagined stature and reduces them to the point of (smelly) caricature, while simultaneously pointing to the equally empty, and puffed-up, schoolboard in the film’s closing section.

  • 15 While making À Propos de Nice, Vigo was scheduled to visit with Chaplin, who had arrived in the cit (...)

18Opposed to this puppetry of authority is teacher Huguet, whose mental and physical limberness are rendered in terms of a marionette. A new arrival on the premises, he is uninfected by the regime and hence a strange attractor to the students gravitating around him. He moves with the supple sway of a contortionist and eventually performs what Vigo himself called a “respectful parody” of a Charlie Chaplin routine from Easy Street complete with hat, walking stick, and waddling gait (qtd. in Gomes 115)15. Eventually, when he draws the brief animated sequence on his desk, he stands upside down, on one hand, suggesting not only Zero’s topsy-turvy balancing act of the real and magic, but also Huguet’s multiple origins in the circus, the puppet theater, Hollywood slapstick and cartoons – forms of popular entertainment poking fun at bourgeois respectability. His seemingly un-coordinated motions embody youthful exuberance and resistance to a disciplinary body politic, much like the statuesque stiffness of Headmaster and Beanpole is in lockstep with educational authority.

  • 16 Le Cain notes, “Already seen as if through the eyes of kids, in the final scene the substitution of (...)

19To represent the school’s alumni and advisory board at the end of the film, Vigo avails himself of a third form of puppetry: life-sized manikins made of papier-mâché. Placed in the back row behind the official dignitaries in the school yard, where an Alumni Day celebration is taking place, the manikins are caricatures of the ancient régime, a shadow cabinet of flimsy figures much like the rigid teaching staff. Paralleling the Surveillant général Bec-de-gaz and Surveillant Pète-sec, whose gaseous names suggest vapidity and odious airiness (even as they embody robotic selves within the machinery of power), the board and alumni inhabit a similar role, signified as it is in their puffed-up dummy identities: flimsy windbags without human expression conducting themselves as zeroes16.

  • 17 What we hear is “a battery of ‘natural’ locomotive steam sounds as if in response to the boys’ spee (...)

20Largely non-speaking figures, Vigo’s dummies are, once again, a commentary on his use of sound precisely in their silence. Communicating, if they do at all, mostly with their bodies, they speak an aesthetic of stillness and the quiet, but also sound and movement, depending on their function. What is more, as caricatures of the human, they are as non-mimetic in their embodiment as is the film’s score written by Maurice Jaubert. Vigo had expressly requested cartoon music – “une musique de dessins animés” (Porcile 205) – for part of the film, and Jaubert, for his part, expressly noted that sound in film should be more than “to plug up the sound ‘gaps,’” and more than the effects of music underscoring the emotional changes of an actor. Such “a doubled visual and audible perception,” he argued, would be “merely carrying over the old musical tradition of melodrama into the cinema” (“Music” 206-7). In order for film music to truly find its role in a “cinematic syntax,” it ought to support those moments in a film when a director “escape[s] the strict reproduction of reality”. Music at those junctures is called upon “to accentuate and prolong the impression of displacement and the rupture with photographic veracity”; it should, in essence, not “be expressive and add its emotion to that of the character or the filmmaker, but… be decorative and to couple its own arabesques to that which the screen provides us” (“Music” 208-9). When, toward the beginning of Zero, for example, the boys’ line-up at the station is accompanied by the sounds of huffing engines, the image-sound synchronicity suggests the film’s (de)formative theme, but also a score that “makes the intermediary of a nonmusical sound ingeniously glide into musical sound (the noise of a train engendering a rhythm which itself gives rise to the actual symphony, high-pitched violins substituting imperceptibly for the whistling of the wind, etc.)” (“Music” 208)17.

  • 18 This is a classic early instance of what Kittler has called “time-axis manipulation,” the reversibi (...)

21What is more, Jaubert was attuned to the changed conditions of sound recording and sound reproduction. Improved microphones and related technologies, he noted, made film music a recorded commodity and enabled an unheard-of “transformation of the material of sound.” Once inscribed on film stock, tracks could be variously manipulated through superimposition, mixing, or playback speed, among “innumerable other special effects simply impossible to conceive without the aid of the editor’s scissors.” To capture the ghostly children’s procession at night in Zero, which Vigo shot in slow motion, Jaubert even availed himself of “the running of sound in reverse.” After first composing the score, he transcribed it backwards for the recording process by the orchestra, only then to play back the already-inverted and recorded track in reverse once more. The effect was distorting and restoring both, in that it recuperated “the contour of the basic melody, but with the ‘transmission’ completely reversed,” so that “the music took on all its mystery from this simple mechanical operation” (“Music” 210)18. Much as the one-armed handstand of Huguet, while animating a cartoon with the other, lifts Zero from the plane of realism to that of trick photography, so the doubly inverted music puts the film’s music on its head. Topsy-turvy both, image and sound instantiate their experimental innovation (while the Headmaster and Beanpole suggest educational and musical orthodoxy).

Le Tumulte Noir, Montage, and the Empire

  • 19 The music in Criterion’s version of À propos de Nice was composed and performed by Marcel Perrone i (...)
  • 20 See, for example, Blake, Le Tumulte noir (esp. 1-36).

22As Vigo and Kaufman’s first film, À propos de Nice centers on the powerful visuality of the new medium shortly before the industrial transition to sound19. But unlike the later sound films, Taris and Zero, which marshal machine-humans to question disciplined bodies and minds, in Á Propos de Nice Vigo employs puppets, manikins and carnival floats in a more sustained fashion to comment on France’s emerging leisure class culture. As the center pieces in the film’s parade, they signify that the country’s affluence is upheld by the human and material resources at home and abroad, that bourgeois savoir vivre is almost literally supported on the backs of an invisible class of workers, colonial subjects and colonial resources. At the same time, supersized negroid faces and voluptuous, nubile paper-sculptings take aim not only at French colonial rule, but also at the erotic celebration of African female bodies, the modernist cult(ure) of primitivism which construed “Africa” as a site of exploitation, mystification, and mystique20.

23In an address to the Groupement des Spectateurs d’Avant Garde, Vigo stated that “In this film, by showing certain aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial, the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution” (qtd. in Le Cain). Formally, this trial and its solution are advanced in dialectical montage sequences that are inflected by the Soviet-style work of Kaufman. Similarly, the visual logic of the film is one of unmasking facades – of going behind shiny exteriors – to reveal a life of poverty and to make visible the labor powering the city. Cuts from the sunny beach into working class neighborhoods show women doing their laundry, while shots of boys playing La Moure – the French version of Rocks, Paper, Scissors – serve as a working-class counterpoint to the roulette tables in the casinos. In one particularly suggestive dialectic, the sculpted torsos of Europe’s economic elite roasting on the beach are juxtaposed to a boy’s deformed hands and another’s diseased face, to bring to a point the effects of exploited labor and substandard living conditions.

24Vigo’s human figures are embedded within that very dialectic and offer an entire panoply of puppets, from the human body itself to the puffed-up papier-mâché floats of the carnival. Shots of crowds promenading on the beach cut across all walks of life and are played at high speed to accentuate the fitful jolts of moving bodies. The film foregrounds bodies as carriers of attire in a display of splendor and desire, particularly if such attire – such as thick furs and black coats – becomes a marker of class and social status. In a well-known trick shot, a young woman lounging on a chair sports various elegant dresses, before being eventually peeled to nakedness, suggesting not only the irreducible commonality of a body, but also the (mis)use of women’s bodies for the display of conspicuous consumption. Vigo is working from a proto-feminist sensibility critical of the appropriation of the female body for purposes of merchandising.

25Other manikins are less life-like but equally strategic in what they say about human lives. In a first trick sequence, Vigo splices in miniature models of tourists arriving via a toy train on a gigantic roulette table, before the invisible hand of a croupier rakes them off. Petit-bourgeois vacationers and their little savings, the shots suggest, disappear into the great void of the capitalist gambling machine, enriching a select few while impoverishing the many. Then, shots of workers cleaning and retouching the carnival floats usher into the parade itself – the traditional site of dissolution. Bakhtin has noted that

[c]arnival is a pageant… without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act….The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first of all is hierarchical structure … or any other form of inequality among people. (122)

26While suitably cordoned off from the proceedings, spectators indeed celebrate with the floats going past, and police officers hand out flowers to suggest a kind of participatory equality. Formally, the camera’s seemingly aleatory movement during some of the scenes too might be seen to replicate the dissolution of the bourgeois order and fit into the paradigm of the carnival as well.

27Vigo, however, is careful to undermine the presumptions of such equality precisely through the way he captures the manikins of the parade. In terms of sequence alone, which he is scrupulous to obey, the train following the dapper Queen of Ceremonies waving from a Landau consists largely of lower- or working-class manikins traipsing behind, such as clowns, witches or musicians, as if to accentuate the differences in class. More importantly, in keeping with the film’s logic of facades, Vigo repeatedly emphasizes the disproportion between diminutive human carriers hidden inside the manikins and the load resting on their shoulders. Close-ups foreground bits of human faces peeking from behind cage-like holes crossed with bars, as if coming up for air, or like prisoners in solitary confinement. As with the behind-the-scenes shots of the preparations for the carnival, Á Propos here make visible the labor undergirding the system of economics, the unacknowledged and faceless underclass doing the heavy lifting.

  • 21 See Flanner’s famous description of Baker’s performance during La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Ch (...)

28Similarly, through the carnival manikins À Propos registers the Empire’s fantasies about its colonies in Africa. The film juxtaposes grotesque disfigurations of female African bodies to the elegant (and naturally white) Queen of Ceremonies to set off European elegance against colonial primitivism. In another cut, the Queen is re-presented as a huge float presiding over what appears to be “Africa” – complete with a head dress and the clichéd markers of a giraffe, a parrot, an ostrich, and an African servant at her feet – to suggest her imperial domination. Primal, primate figures, dressed in suits, are following in her wake, as are manikins of “authentic” tribal women featuring necklace clasps and oral inserts for labial stretching. And while the hefty queen is without ostensible allure, her banana skirt is a prominent reminder, for spectators and film audience alike, of the most sensual incarnation of the French frenzy with all things black: Josephine Baker21.

29Thus, Vigo avails himself of numerous manikins – both human and papier mâché – to articulate a powerful critique of the economic and colonial underpinnings of the French republic. While the floats especially in the parade are meant to amuse, Vigo inverts their spirit of exuberance by laying bare their unspoken political dimensions. Significantly, he intercuts the carnival with shots of a military parade to suggest, not only the uncanny synchronicity of a state apparatus staging, as it were, a shadow parade paralleling the delirious free-for-all a few blocks away. By rendering the precision of goose-stepping foot soldiers at high speed, and doing so from an aerial view, he also emphasizes the omnipresence of a military, whose efficient dummies are marching to a different drum. Even the parading bodies of clowns, witches, and monkeys, it seems – limber and liminal figures all – are under the surveillance of a machine securing the stability of the Empire. Sweeping panning cuts to the battle ships of the French Navy lying at anchor reinforce that presence, as do shots of small leisure craft docking alongside of them. The joyous mingling of vacationers and mariners points to the symbolic symbiosis of pleasure and power, of a consumer economy upheld by military might that stretches across the Mediterranean into North Africa and beyond. Maintaining not only the colonial status quo, the Navy also maintains the social order at home.

The Mechanics of Cinema, Narrative Engines, and the City of Puppets

  • 22 While it is impossible to restore L’Atalante’s original theatrical release, before its re-release a (...)

30If puppets and manikins served from the beginning as more than handy stage props in Vigo’s cinema, that is particularly true of L’Atalante (1934). By the time he worked on his second chef d’œuvre, Vigo had evolved a comprehensive artistic vision and embedded puppets – mechanical and otherwise – within a machine aesthetic that governs the film’s major design elements, from its engine-driven location on a mobilized barge, to the, quite literally, mechanical production of sound through radio, gramophones, music boxes, and an orchestrion. Paralleling this self-conscious engineering of sound, L’Atalante also foregrounds visual metaphors that suggest a veritable metanarrative on the machinery of film itself and the concomitant regulation of narrative speed22.

  • 23 Père Jules is often seen oiling machines. When, early in the film, he squirts oil into a sprocket, (...)

31Consider, for example, the prominent switch from the film’s opening scene on land – the marriage of Juliette, the village girl, to Jean, the boat captain – to water, when the mate on board the L’Atalante, Père Jules, starts the barge’s motor that is captured in a separate frame. Accentuated by the chugging diesel engine, that ignition also kick-starts two complementary forms of mobility that define much of the film: that of the boat – taking off without even a wedding banquet, as one of the villagers comments – and that of the film itself, the beginning of the action. The players and viewers alike are being moved from the stationary, medieval village setting to a floating, mobilized mise-en-scene, on which and from whose perspectives the majority of subsequent scenes are rendered, beginning with the on-shore wedding guests floating past and disappearing from the frame. Similarly, after a near miss in the dark because of fog, Père Jules brings both boat and action to a standstill by lubricating the jammed anchor sprockets23, and when Jean calls to “make up for lost time” the following morning, Juliette answers him by turning the wheel of her sewing machine below deck. The treadle-cum-throttle throws on the narrative engine once more to accelerate both boat and action, just as both sprocket and flywheel (respectively, linked to chains and strips and threads) suggest visual equivalents to the mechanics of film transport and splicing.

32Corresponding figurations of sound underscore the engineering of film on an acoustic level. The, alternately, more rapid or decelerating beat of the engine is a sonic motif in the diegesis – accentuated, as it often is, by clanging bells and blowing foghorns – and of course suggests the changing speed of barge and action. More prominently, radio is given generous screen space to point to its seductiveness – in commercial and technological terms – and to its function as a machine paralleling that of acoustic film. Mesmerized by the radio and speaker horn filling the screen, Juliette works the knobs until static gives way to a broadcast: “Paris with the latest news. For the sales on Boulevard Haussmann… the shop windows are full… Purple is all the rage, with lame, velvet and satin for the evening… Berets are worn with the left side turned up.” A machine manufacturing desire, the radio instills images that prepare Juliette for her foray into the shop windows of Paris later on. Equally important, when Juliette asks Jean, “Is it far?” – referring to the distance between station and receiver – Jean – misunderstanding the question for signal speed – responds: “Near or far, it always sounds the same.” While the radio, for Jean, is without the charm of novelty that it has for the less worldly Juliette, Vigo portrays broadcasting as what we could, pace Tom Gunning, call “a radio of attractions” (63). Much like sound film, which in the early 1930s was still capable of producing eye- and ear-popping moments for its first spectators, commercial radio in France was introduced in the late 1920s and capable of initial bedazzlement. Juliette is enamored not only of the images conjured up in her mind, but also of radio’s capability to suggest something like a wireless, sonic presence. Put differently, for Vigo, it seems, radio exerts its spell not simply because of its production of consumer sound bites, but because of its illusion of immediacy, much like sound film itself.

  • 24 The film’s original script by Jean Guinée which Vigo reworked builds on the tradition of navigation (...)

33The phonograph is similarly connected to the self-reflexive loops about film sound and sound film. A fixture throughout much of L’Atalante, it is associated with Père Jules, the tinkerer with machines and the noise maker and sound engineer in the diegesis, and through him with the film’s central plot of reuniting the estranged lovers. The ironmonger Rasputin sells him a record; the curio cabinet of his cabin is dominated by the machine; and viewers see him stealing a bell mouth in preparation for “repairing” his own apparatus. Juliette recognizes the enchanting contraption right away upon stepping into his den, and after meandering through the streets of Paris eventually finds refuge in the Palace Chansons. There, in the aural equivalent of a nickelodeon, she plays “Le Chant des Mariniers” that is, via an external loudspeaker, broadcast to the outside and brings in the (only) man in tune with phonographs: Jules. He rightly understands the record as a distress signal from the booth, an SOS of love that keeps beeping until Juliette is returned to her lovelorn husband24.

  • 25 A major proponent of Jaubert’s compositions, Truffaut re-used the music of this scene in The Story (...)
  • 26 Gitelman has suggested that “phonographs and phonograph records had rich symbolic careers.” Very mu (...)

34Jean, for his part, in an extended parallel cut accelerating faster and faster experiences the phonograph as a mechanical muse whispering into his receptive ears. Following Juliette’s departure, in frames dominated by the gramophone, Jean sticks his head in a bucket of water in hopes of seeing his beloved, and he eventually jumps overboard to find her in the river. Jules, meanwhile, repairs his defunct machine and plays the new record – a waltz by Jaubert – which accompanies the iconic dance sequence of the lovers under water25. Exhausted upon resurfacing, and already linked to Juliette through the con-joining music, Jean is reanimated further when Jules orders the cabin boy to retrieve the machine: “We’ll play the phonograph.” He tells Jean that “I’ll show you my latest invention,” and the film portrays the three walking on deck, with the cabin boy carrying the gramophone playing the film’s theme. Subsequent close-ups show Jules re-cranking the machine and turning the bell mouth toward Jean, who stares into it and resolves to resume the search for his wife26.

  • 27 As if to lay bare much of L’Atalante’s sound machinery, Jules lectures his pupil that “There are ha (...)

35More importantly, Vigo couples this internal function of the phonograph with reflections on the conditions of possibility of sound film itself. While Jean has his oneiric rendezvous with Juliette below, Père Jules repairs his defunct machine above, noting that “If the machine worked, it’d get [Jean’s] mind off things” and moving his finger on the new disk as if cleaning it. In the narrative reality of L’Atalante, however, Jules is ostensibly using his finger as a stylus playing back the record, and both Jean and the audience are suitably baffled when they miraculously hear the record in the diegesis and on the soundtrack, before a cut shows that the waltz is being played by Jules’s side kick on the accordion. While Jean may be perturbed at this little joke at his expense, Vigo here momentarily, and playfully, lays bare the mechanics of disk-based sound production in the early days of sound film. The seeming synchronicity of image and sound, in fact, is not only an optical illusion, but an acoustic one as well: trompe l’oeil and trompe l’oreille work in unison to produce a new audio-visual assemblage. And what may appear as a technological miracle is, in fact, produced by a battery of hardware that is as mysterious as it is explicable and, at times, malfunctioning27.

36It is against this sonic context that Vigo engages his puppets and marionettes. By way of a prelude, viewers are ushered into the surrealist shadow box of Jules’ cabin, which sports not only the phonograph and a ringing alarm clock, but musical boxes unwinding the sounds of their mellifluous glockenspiel. At the center of it is a large mechanical maestro under the baton of Jules – the sound engineer of L’Atalante – directing not only the music coming from the box on which it is mounted, but also the ones surrounding him and including one Juliette is churning in her hand. This orchestration of mechanical sound and figure is then repeated on a macrocosmic scale the following day, when Jean – having failed to take Juliette to Paris – takes her dancing at Dudule’s. The hall is dominated by a grand player piano, whose carrousel-type music propels the dancers on a canopied floor much like marionettes revolving in invisible grooves on a platform. The dancers in L’Atalante, indeed, suggest an ensemble of mechanical dolls waltzing to the hammered beat of the orchestrion – another narrative engine regulating the speed of steps and story. An invisible machinery of strings and stops coordinates both melody and muscle and produces comic synergy.

  • 28 The careful editing of these scenes is further evident in the ring of the conductor’s bell, which i (...)

37Juliette’s escape to Paris the following day is the most elaborate orchestration of such puppetry and similarly suggests subterranean control, coupled with a critique of capitalist consumption that makes desiring machines of us all. Already, at the beginning of the scene, while an angry Jean gives commands to leave port, Juliette steps onto a street car to be shuttled into the city: the canal of the barge and the track of the train point not only to complementary forms of simultaneous and opposite motion, but also to the tracking of human character puppets with only limited agency, encased as they are in channeled vehicles28. Then, as the scene cuts to Juliette’s window shopping, a slow panning shot shows her bedazzlement at a troupe of mechanical puppets bobbing happily in the windows. Dressed to the hilt and offering, en miniature, haute couture, bijoux and maquillage forever outside of her budget, the puppets yet instill (insatiable) consumer desire into her impressionable brain. Much like the human dancers earlier controlled by the machinery out of sight, and no less than Juliette standing agog in front of the display window, the jerky giddiness of the puppets is subject to the manipulative push and pull of subterranean cogs and levers. An invisible system of control, Vigo suggests, exerts its authority over all of us, an apparatus of desire that, in effect, liquidates the very distinction between human and machine.

38In his work on Paris as the capital of the 19th century, Benjamin has similarly noted that mechanical dolls evolved as the “newest invention of industrial luxury” and as “the true fairies of these arcades.” As vehicles for “sociocritical significance,” they “revolved on their musical socle” and advertised luxury items to its, largely female, clientele that defined the ever-widening scope of modernist fashion. In particular, as he cites from J.-K. Huysmans’ Croquis parisiens, (stripped-down) mannequins trigger “the sorrows of women who… experience the growing indifference of a husband, or the imminent desertion of a lover, or the final disarming of those charms which allowed them once to conquer, in the unavoidable battle they wage for the closed-up wallet of the man” (Arcades 693-5). The game of sexual attraction is fueled by a barrage of glitz and glamor and propelled by an omnipresent (and hence invisible) system of consumption threatening to reduce humans to puppets in their own right.

39Significantly, as if to replicate cinematically Benjamin’s critical gaze, Vigo’s camera in the scene’s panning tableau eventually reverses itself and catches Juliette’s consumer gaze from the point of view of the dancing puppets themselves (eventually even going behind them to capture both in the act of dancing and ogling). The puppets are looking from the inside out both at their own reflection in the window pane and beyond at Juliette and other passers-by, which is to say, at their own reflection in the world of humans. This is Vigo’s most in-vigo-rating formal gesture that, in the modern economy of consumption, humans are trading places with puppets and run the risk of degrading into desiring machines if they don’t resist the lure of allure.

40Vigo’s gentle sensibilities forbid him to make explicit statements on what form such resistance should take, but the impressions of urban poverty Juliette collects in her meanderings suggest, in dialectical fashion, an awareness of class and strongly leftist sympathies. Footage of Depression-era Paris in working-class quartiers intersecting with middle- (and upper-) class wealth furthermore point to the demystifying function of cinema as a technology of, not just entertainment, but also social critique, as in his other films. Paris can still be seen as beautiful and cosmopolitan, even as (or precisely because) the structure of the film deflates the myth of a care-free City of Light. The film’s form, Vigo suggests, can accommodate space for the romantic ethos at the heart of L’Atalante, without compromising deeper political overtones.

41Indeed, the concluding aerial shots of L’Atalante open up the aperture in literal and metaphoric terms, when a flying camera tracks the barge cruising along the Seine. In a scene reversing the beginning of the still-silent À propos de Nice, when aerial photography offers sanitized views of Mediterranean wealth before zooming in on the grime of life, the final images of L’Atalante pull back from life on the ground to emphasize filmic form once more. The aerial view is punctured by the doleful hum of Jaubert’s closed-mouth chorus and suggests a symbolic return to the synergistic possibilities of image and sound, and Vigo’s concern with integrating politics into an essentially aesthetic vision of cinema. This aesthetic vision, as I have argued, is nowhere more visible, and audible, than in his innovative use of sound and sound devices – at the very threshold of sound film – and, more importantly, in his puppets and automata, which populate his oeuvre as much as human actants. Both dimensions of film-making would provide a model for the puppets and sound machines in the work of later 1930s filmmakers – Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and La Règle du jeu come to mind – and allow political statements to emerge through filmic form itself. Far from being simple leftovers from the days of pantomime and the stage, they figure as essential props in Vigo’s cinema that, while celebrating the jouissance of cinema itself, remind viewers of the dangers of authority, consumerism, and automation – of every stripe.

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Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism. A History/Anthology, 1907-1939. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2 vol., 1988.

François Albéra and Maria Tortajada, Eds. Cinema Beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and Trans. Caryl Emerson. Intro. Wayne Booth. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.

Jody Blake, Le Tumulte Noir. Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900-1930, University Park: Penn State Univ. Press, 1999.

René Clair, Dir. Entr’acte (1924). Accessed 24 February 2015.

Eugène Deslaw, Dir. March of the Machines,, Accessed 28 February 2015.

Sergei Eisensein, Film Form Essays in Film Theory. Ed. and trans. Jay Leyda. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1949.

Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939. Ed. Irving Drutman. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph,” MIT communications forum, Accessed 14 July 2015.

Laurent Guido, “Dancing Dolls and Mechanical Eyes. Tracking an Obsessive Motive from Ballet to Cinema”, in Albéra and Tortajada, Cinema Beyond Film, 171-191.

Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies. Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987.

Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle 8, 3/4, 1986: 63-70.

Maurice Jaubert, “The Cinema: Music,” Abel II: 206-211.

Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press, 2011.

Friedrich A Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. and Intro. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999.

Maximilian Le Cain, “Jean Vigo,” Great Directors, senses of cinema, vol. 21,, Accessed 25 January 2015.

Charles O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: Technology and Film Style in France and the U.S. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005.

Claude Perrin, “Jean Vigo, ou la Beauté de L’informe,” études cinématographiques, no. 51-52, 1966: 5-22.

François Porcile, Maurice Jaubert. Musicien populaire or maudit?, Paris: Editeurs Français Réunis, 1971.

P.E Salles Gomes, Jean Vigo. London: Faber & Faber, rev. 1998 (1972).

Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata,” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, eds. William Clark, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001: 126-165.

Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Michael Temple, Jean Vigo. Manchester & New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2005.

François Truffaut, Dir. The Story of Adèle H. Paris: Les Films du Carrosse, 1975.

Jean Vigo, Dir., L’Atalante. Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert (G.F.F.A.), 1934.

La Natation par Jean Taris. G.F.F.A., 1931.

Zero for Conduct. G.F.F.A., 1933.

“Toward a Social Cinema,” Abel II: 60-63.

Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman, Dirs. À propos de Nice. Pathé, 1930.

The Complete Jean Vigo (Criterion pamphlet, 2011).

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1 Temple’s concluding chapter “Visions of Vigo” surveys the quotations, remakes, and portraits (esp. 157-

165), and he delineates “Vigo’s after-image” as one of the “symbolic foundations of the post-war consecration of filmmakers as authentic and autonomous creators” (142).

2 See Simon, The Films of Jean Vigo (esp. 1-10), for a useful summary of Vigo’s major influences.

3 Vigo’s principal cinematographer Boris Kaufman, of course, was Dziga Vertov’s younger brother, and Kaufman’s first job as camera man was with Deslaw in the making of March of the Machines (Simon 9).

4 See Vigo, “Toward a Social Cinema,” in Abel II: 61.

5 “Like most admirers of Entr’acte, Vigo had not passed up the opportunity of filming a funeral in speeded-up motion” (Salles Gomes 62). I would add that the closing sequence in Nice is likely also a “quotation” from a similar montage toward the beginning of Clair’s film.

6 For “the history of dissident puppetry in Europe,” including the guignol, see Blumenthal, esp. 171-174.

7 Schaffer has shown how automata “were never merely metaphors of the social order. As commodity fetishes, they played a significant role in the manufacturing economy and the mercantile system.” By acknowledging that “valuable knowledge was locked up in the operations of the mechanical workers,” such as gestures and motions, that knowledge could be put to productive use by making it visible. “This belief legitimated the new devices representing human working bodies” (127-8). Much as I would like to think that Vigo perceived this association, I tend not to think so.

8 O’Brien has noted that “whereas the emphasis in 1930s Hollywood was on sound’s intelligibility within the film’s story-world, French filmmaking implies an alternate model, whereby sound serves to reproduce a performance staged for recording” (1). Instead of post-production synchronization, early (and many contemporary) French films, including Vigo’s, were made with son direct – the simultaneous recording of sound and image.

9 See Seltzer for a full treatment of this dialectic in American (pre)modernist discourse, and Guido for the way such a mechanization of the body is traceable in nineteenth-century literature and especially dance: “There emerges the conception of a human – usually female – figure that is progressively reduced to its mechanical dimension, and limited in particular to the rhythmic parameters that emerged from the scientific study of movement, where the body was treated as a mere object” (Albera & Tortajada 19). Taris is legible as a textbook case of such regularization, and how to deconstruct it.

10 In Taris, “les performances du célèbre nageur ressemblent aux contorsions d’une grenouille lorsque Vigo les montre en plan rapproché, sous l’eau, et lorsqu’il nous révèle cette bouche qui, sans grimacçante, cherche la surface de l’eau pour respirer” (Perrin, études cinématographiques, no. 51-52, 20).

11 The original French version of the opening stanzas are as follows: “Maman les petits bateaux/ Qui vont sur l’eau/ Ont-ils des jambes?/ Mais oui mon gros bêta/ S’ils n’en avaient pas/ Ils ne marcheraient pas.” The song was adapted from George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson (1891) and instantly became a popular nursery rhyme in France in the late nineteenth century. Above and beyond celebrating the insistent inquisitiveness of childhood (with the children eventually asking the same question of the father as well), Vigo the auteur may also be thinking of Forever (1921), a still-silent film adaptation of the novel by his countryman George Fitzmaurice. This is another way for Vigo to inscribe his cinematic pedigree into his oeuvre, now by upping the ante and including sound into the picture.

12 See Gomes 71. Vigo may be drawing on Eisenstein’s similar preference for silent film (Film Form 257-60), which was a subject of prominent debate among cinéphiles in France (O’Brien, 64-80).

13 The crispness of the voice amplified by the megaphone is such that it magnifies an up to this point unheard-of sensory human experience. French critics “coined the term phonogénie to refer to aspects of an actor’s voice that became evident only when electronically recorded and reproduced,” and hence self-reflectively pondered “the revelatory effects of electronic sound technology on the human voice” (O’Brien 4).

14 Notably, Vigo at one point “tried to find out about the possibilities of obtaining some small job on Abel Gance’s production, Napoléon” (Gomes 46).

15 While making À Propos de Nice, Vigo was scheduled to visit with Chaplin, who had arrived in the city. However, “the conversation faltered for lack of a common language,” and the confused admirer even refused Chaplin’s offer of a photograph (Gomes 84).

16 Le Cain notes, “Already seen as if through the eyes of kids, in the final scene the substitution of dummies for authority figures concedes victory to the boys by depriving the adults of any claim on reality – only the young rebels’ emotional perception, which has completely diminished their oppressors, still exists” (cinema, vol. 21).

17 What we hear is “a battery of ‘natural’ locomotive steam sounds as if in response to the boys’ speech… [T]he several measures are reduced to their rhythmic and not their ‘realistic’ content” (Gorbman 129).

18 This is a classic early instance of what Kittler has called “time-axis manipulation,” the reversibility of time through media (Gramophone 34).

19 The music in Criterion’s version of À propos de Nice was composed and performed by Marcel Perrone in 2001.

20 See, for example, Blake, Le Tumulte noir (esp. 1-36).

21 See Flanner’s famous description of Baker’s performance during La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (Yesterday xx).

22 While it is impossible to restore L’Atalante’s original theatrical release, before its re-release as Le Chaland qui passe the same year (Gomes 188-190), the version released on Criterion possesses enough integrity to allow for substantive analysis. In the audio commentary to Criterion release of L’Atalante, Eisenschitz notes that “the film has a distinctive editing rhythm that has something to do with the flowing of the river. I submit that restored version of 2001 returns to that rhythm.” I agree, but would add that the rhythm of the natural river flow is deliberately subordinated to the mechanical, and hence regulated, speed of the barge’s diesel engine.

23 Père Jules is often seen oiling machines. When, early in the film, he squirts oil into a sprocket, as Jean and Juliette are about to (re-)consummate their marriage, he lubricates more than the narrative action but adjusts, as he does many times, the domestic machinery as well. The twinkling in Vigo’s eyes couldn’t be more prominent.

24 The film’s original script by Jean Guinée which Vigo reworked builds on the tradition of navigational vagabondism. Quoting from Gourdon de Genouillac’s Les Refrains de la rue, de 1830 á 1870, Benjamin observes: “Baudelaire’s ‘Le Beau Navire’ [The Good Ship] created quite a stir… It was the cue for a whole series of sailor songs, which seemed to have transformed the Parisians into mariners and inspired them with dreams of boating” (426).

25 A major proponent of Jaubert’s compositions, Truffaut re-used the music of this scene in The Story of Adèle H.

26 Gitelman has suggested that “phonographs and phonograph records had rich symbolic careers.” Very much apropos Juliette’s interest in media, she observes “that homemakers helped make home phonographs to the complicated extent that they ‘made’ ‘homes,’ once we acknowledge that technological change is not a laboratory event or a corporate strategy but a fully social practice” (“New Media”). – I would also suggest that the gramophone connects to Dita Parlo’s name (née Grethe Gerda Kornstädt), which French speakers might associate with parler/to speak (and the parlograph) and dita/said.

27 As if to lay bare much of L’Atalante’s sound machinery, Jules lectures his pupil that “There are harder things than making a record play with your finger… And electricity! Da you know what it is? And the wireless. Da you know how that works?”

28 The careful editing of these scenes is further evident in the ring of the conductor’s bell, which is not only the starting signal for the streetcar but also, viewers are to assume, for Jean’s return voyage.

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Michael Wutz, « A propos the Puppeteer – Jean Vigo and the Cinema of Automata »Mise au point [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2018, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Wutz

Michael Wutz (doctorat de l’université Emory) est professeur distingué présidentiel (James Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor) dans le département d’anglais à l’université de Weber State, États-Unis, et l’éditeur en chef de Weber – The Contemporary West. Ses intérêts de recherche sont la littérature américaine moderne et contemporaine, le modernisme et la culture (post)impression typographique. Il est l’éditeur de Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology (en collaboration avec Joseph Tabbi ; Cornell, 1997), le traducteur en anglais de Gramophone, Film, Typewriter de Friedrich Kittler (en collaboration avec Geoffrey Winthrop-Young; Stanford, 1999) et l’auteur de Enduring Words Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology (Alabama, 2009). Il a aussi collaboré avec Hal Crimmel à l’édition de Conversations with W. S. Merwin (Mississippi 2015). Avec Geoffrey-Winthrop-Young et Ilinca Iurascu, il est en train de traduire (et travailler à) une édition des essais de Kittler intitulée Operation Valhalla: Friedrich Kittler on War, Weapons, and Media. Les sites et contiennent davantage d’informations sur son travail.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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