Though Julien Temple has received plenty of acclaim for such music documentaries as The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, his attempts at narrative cinema (Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy) have not always been welcomed with open arms. That may explain why he wanted to tell the story of Jean Vigo, the radical French auteur who never lived long enough to see the four films he completed during his tragically brief lifetime recognised as classics.
Opening in the 1920s, Vigo begins with the young filmmaker in waiting (played by the very English James Frain) travelling to a remote sanatorium to receive treatment for tuberculosis. There he meets Lydu (Romane Bohringer), a fellow sufferer who he persuades to come to Paris and become his wife. Teaming up with other free-thinkers, Vigo starts work on his first film, a subversive documentary about social injustices in Nice. At every turn, though, he is beset by financial problems, a hostile public and the creeping dread that his deadly lung disease will finally catch up with him.
Big-screen biopics tend to follow a prescribed formula, and Temple’s film ticks most of the same boxes. To its credit, though, Vigo also attempts to express the quasi-spiritual hold that the moving image holds over its subject, a man so excited to receive his first camera he forgets he is naked and who, during the shooting of barge drama L’Atalante, thinks nothing of diving into a canal to retrieve one.
“You have time to compromise,” he tells his producer as he films the famous pillow-fight scene from Zero De Conduite. “I don’t!” Such blinkered dedication does not always make Frain easy to warm to, but it goes some way to explaining why directors like François Truffaut, Lindsay Anderson and Temple himself have been so captivated by his work.
The trouble with Vigo is that it makes you want to see the films themselves, rather than the abbreviated mock-ups we are unsatisfactorily given here. As it is we have to take an awful lot of Jean’s genius on trust, something that’s rather hard to do given Frain’s pronounced lack of charisma. Bohringer is much better as his fiercely passionate wife, while Jim Carter is great fun as an avuncular anarchist given to displaying his tattooed torso. For all that, a Jean Vigo boxset might be a better buy to truly appreciate the director’s talent.
Temple’s passion for Vigo’s work is evident; shame it’s not as contagious as his TB. And the odd extra wouldn’t hurt.