Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and French director Jean Vigo may not have a lot in common beyond the release this week of their first features on DVD and Blu-ray, but they share one distinction. Both got it right the first time out.
In Vigo's case, that's a bittersweet thing to say. Although he made a couple of other short films, his legacy consists of a brilliant 44-minute exercise in satire and surrealism, Zéro de conduite ( Zero for Conduct, 1933), and a more straightforward but beautifully told 87-minute feature about two newlyweds, L'Atalante (1934). Months after finishing L'Atalante, he died at 29 of rheumatic septicemia.
He wasn't appreciated in his lifetime. Zéro de conduite, in which boarding-school students stage a rebellion, was banned by French censors on the grounds that it might "hinder the maintenance of order." There would be no public screening until after the Second World War.
When L'Atalante was shown to theatre owners at the start of 1934, they found it long and boring. The distributor, Gaumont Films, chopped out scenes and replaced sections of Maurice Jaubert's score with a popular song of the day, The Passing Barge. It was only in 1990 that Gaumont released a largely restored version, the one included in this week's Criterion set, The Complete Jean Vigo.
Zéro de conduite begins as schoolboys arrive at a school overseen by grotesques and martinets, save for a new monitor (Jean Dasté) who encourages their high spirits. Vigo, who was paying tribute to his late anarchist father (strangled while in prison for pacifism) and exorcising demons from his own boarding-school days, creates a world in which anything goes. A carefree march through the village is so intoxicating that François Truffaut imitated it in his 1959 film The 400 Blows. Lindsay Anderson borrowed the climactic rooftop rebellion for his 1968 movie If….
With L'Atalante, Vigo was required to use someone else's story, but he had room to improvise. Jean (Dasté again) is the handsome skipper of a barge that travels between Paris and Le Havre. He marries Juliette (Dita Parlo), a vivacious beauty who suddenly finds herself in cramped quarters on a barge with a dozen stray cats and a hygiene-averse scalawag (the great Michel Simon, echoing his scruffy character from Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning).
The strain tells. Boy loses girl; boy gets girl. Throughout, Vigo captures the lovers' passion, the energy of a Paris dance hall and always, always, the world of the barge. Vigo treated the weather as a challenge. If it was foggy, he added smoke to the fog. If it rained, he lit up the rain.
Eisenstein, part of a new wave of directors after the Russian Revolution, proved with the silent feature Strike (1925, released by Kino) that he was a master of visual storytelling. The fact-based tale of a factory strike in pre-revolutionary Russia isn't much on nuance – workers are heroic, fat-cat bosses are evil – but the real story is in the rich images and dynamic editing. This is a thriller told with an assuredness astonishing from a theatrical set designer who had never before made a movie. He would, of course, go on to make such masterpieces as Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky.
His crowd scenes are easy to follow. He plays with light and shadow, setting scenes in silhouette for dramatic effect. He revels in geometric patterns. His juxtapositions may not be subtle – a boss squeezes the juice from fruit in his headquarters while soldiers on horseback trample starving workers – but they have power.
Oh, and figures in a scrapbook come to life, waving as if leaning out of windows. In your face, Harry Potter.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
The Perfect Host (2010) For the first half hour, this movie seems a standard tale about a wounded bank robber (Clayne Crawford, strongly recalling Ray Liotta) who talks his way into the home of a rich man ( Frasier's David Hyde Pierce) and threatens death if the man doesn't co-operate. The viewer expects the tables to be turned, and they are, violently, but the final hour is a surprisingly and entertainingly twisty ride. Expect elements of a police thriller and echoes of such puzzle films as Sleuth. Australian writer-director-editor Nick Tomnay based this on an earlier short film he made, clips from which are in the making-of bonus.
In a Better World (2010) Danish director Susanne Bier has said that even intrinsically good people may find it difficult to stay good in a hostile world. Here, she and writer Anders Thomas Jensen test that proposition in different ways, as characters – a doctor treating patients in Africa, his bullied son in Denmark – must decide how far they can be pushed before exacting revenge. Don't bet all your money on sweetness and light. The movie won the Oscar for best foreign-language film of 2010.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Those who haven't seen this black-and-white sci-fi classic may think it's a goofy special-effects film. It's not. Adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel The Shrinking Man, it's an often wrenching tale of a man (Grant Williams, wooden but serviceable), who passes through a radiation cloud and, six months later, begins slowly shrinking. The movie may be taken as an adventure tale (the cat becomes a foe, the staircase a mountain), a metaphor for illness or aging, a tribute to the indomitability of the spirit or all of the above. The special effects vary between powerful and amusingly rudimentary. Not for young children.