Jean Vigo’s first film, a short that doesn’t even reach the half-hour mark, is a delightful, infectious film which plays around with perspective and editing to humorous and enthralling effect. Don’t let the runtime deceive you, there’s a lot packed into this short film in large part due to the playful style Vigo applies to his subject matter.
In the vein of the early documentary Man with a Movie Camera, À propos de Nice is a tapestry of life in motion. However, instead of the Marxist influence of working class, Vigo examines the town of Nice’s richer inhabitants as they roam the streets, eat at nice restaurants and take part in various crowded events.
The subject itself is not particularly noteworthy, but Vigo’s style brings to life these stagnate and mundane shots. One of his recurring techniques is to spin and tilt the camera in order to create these disorienting but scenic shots of nice buildings slowly spin about, as if in dance. It takes what would otherwise be a still shot and adds movement and dynamism to the image.
Likewise, Vigo takes a number of subjects and uses editing to add another dimension or suggest something else. One of his recurring ideas is stripping away things through cross-dissolving images to give the illusion of something suddenly disappearing. Whether it’s slowly undressing a woman or stripping away a man’s shoes in the midst of a shoeshine, Vigo takes everyday sights and applies editing and imagination in order to make them humorous by literally deconstructing them.
Another way he has fun with the images is by returning time and time again to a low shot of a group of girls dancing. At first it’s simply a curiosity, but as Vigo intercuts these dancing girls with various images whether it’s an old woman looking off into the distance or any other curious image that strikes Vigo’s fancy, he creates this humorous effect that the dancing girls are somehow the object of everyone’s gaze.
Another image of infatuation that Vigo returns to time and time again is the bustling crowds. While they initially give off this high-energy, bustling vibe, Vigo once again misleads his audience by turning the assumption on its head by looking at the type of crowd one wouldn’t want to be a part of. It’s these constant setups and misdirects that give À propos de Nice this cheeky, playful tone throughout.
Therefore, I would call the film a granddaddy of the French New Wave, playing with some of the same ideas and techniques, but instead of being caught up in an avant-garde movement, À propos de Nice is experimental by the virtue that it existed in the time before the system and filmmaking became entrenched in globally accepted rules and techniques.
And that’s what makes À propos de Nice such a delight to watch. Even though I’ve no idea what Jean Vigo’s face looks like, I can see the smile on his face as he excitedly found out if he put this shot with another he suddenly found the reaction to be humorous or provoking. It’s rare that the joy and love of filmmaking appears so clearly in the frames that make up the final product, but Vigo’s first is such a film.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing