As the son of notorious French anarchist Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (aka Miguel Almereyda), young Jean Vigo and his family were obliged to stay on the move, usually under assumed names. After his father was found dead in his prison cell in 1917, Vigo attended boarding school under the name Jean Sales. A tuberculosis victim, Vigo moved to Nice to recuperate in 1929. While on the mend, he directed his first film, the surrealist A propos de Nice (1930). His next project was the 11-minute Taris, a documentary about France's reigning swimming champion. Zero de conduite (1932), Vigo's third film (at 45 minutes, it was not quite a short but not exactly a feature), combined the absurd qualities of his first picture with the straight-on realities of the second. The naturalistic central setting of a dismal, restrictive boys' school is undercut with the absurdity of a pint-sized instructor, a World War I-style pillow fight, and a wish-fulfillment climactic scene in which the schoolboys pelt their adult tormentors with fruit (echoes of this film persisted in the later works of Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, and Francois Truffaut). Zero de conduite was perceived by the French authorities as an unpatriotic attack on the Establishment, and as such was banned until 1945. Vigo's fourth film, L'Atalante (1935), is regarded as his masterpiece. The film superbly blends realism (an unhappily married couple chugging up and down the Seine in a barge) with poetic flights of surrealism. Sadly, L'Atalante, like Zero de conduite, fell victim to the censors; its producers savagely cut the picture into incomprehensibility, arguing (as before) that its attack on the bourgeoisie was "anti-France." Penniless, Jean Vigo died of leukemia at the age of 29. His legacy has been kept alive by his filmmaking disciples, by the annual Jean Vigo Prize, and by the restored version of his chef-d'ouevre, L'Atalante.
by Hal Erickson biography