PRINT September 1974

Jean Vigo’s “Taris”

JEAN VIGO IS ONE OF the truly original directors in the history of film. He made only four films, totaling approximately 165 minutes, and yet this limited output has earned his reputation as a preeminent master of film. Three of his works, A Propos de Nice (1929), Zéro de Conduite (1933), and L’Atalante (1934), are frequently referred to as among the great works of cinema and the fourth, Taris (1931), while not as well known, is nevertheless an accomplished work.

Each of the four films differs in mode and structure yet important elements link them. A Propos de Nice, a documentary that belongs within the special genre of “city films,” is a highly witty, political work, an acerbic commentary on and expose of the social values of the bourgeoisie of the Mediterranean city. Taris, also documentary in nature, marks a major shift in mood and intent; it produces a subversion of the documentary form and creates an atmosphere best characterized as “fantasy” or “magic.” Zéro de Conduite, Vigo’s first narrative film, marks an even greater departure. It is one of the most extraordinary narrative films ever made, combining what are usually considered different modes within a unique structure. L’Atalante, while perhaps the most traditional of Vigo’s films, is a singular work, featuring many strange, unorthodox solutions to narrative problems.

Though Vigo clearly does not belong to a school of filmmaking, it is possible to locate him at the end of the second avant-garde period in France during the late 1920s; there is certainly evidence of the period’s influence on his work, but his adaptation of some of the avant-garde’s basic strategies distinguishes him from his predecessors. Soviet film of the 1920s—Eisenstein’s to some extent and Vertov’s most of all—also influenced him. The effect of certain genres of film is also important—obviously the “city film” in A Propos de Nice and the sports film in Taris.

Vigo drew transformational or apparitional elements of film—which can be termed “magical”—from the French avant-garde of the 1920s. These elements include slow, fast, and reverse motion, dissolves, superimpositions, and stop-motion tricks, as well as the use of distorting effects through anamorphic and kaleidoscopic lenses, and photography through materials such as glass. These techniques mark almost all French films of the 1920s—the work of Man Ray, Hans Richter, René Clair, Germaine Dulac, Alberto Cavalcanti, Dmitri Kirsanov, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, Jean Renoir, Fernand Léger and Jean Epstein. However, their specific use varied; Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), for instance, is radically different from most of the others. All these films tend to disavow realistic modes of representation, stress special forms of seeing and representation, and generally distort and transform space and exaggerate and alter time. They call attention to themselves as unique capabilities of the cinematic process and undermine the sense of the objective recording of reality upon which realistic modes of representation depend.

Vigo’s films relate to certain films from an earlier period which might have impressed his imagination, specifically the early French film exemplified by the works of Georges Méliès, Emile Cohl, and Ferdinand Zecca in which magical tendencies, the sense of the miraculous and the inexplicable are evident. The terms of action cannot be understood logically as inhering in the everyday world. They are supported by a system of representation which exploits special cinematic effects—stop action, animation, reverse motion, superimposition, dissolves, etc. Similarity between these works and those of Vigo is best understood by pointing to the central motif of the climactic sequence in Taris in which Taris emerges out of the water in reverse motion and is magically clothed. The joyful sense of cinematic magic is nearly identical to a Zecca film called Whence Does He Come? (c. 1906) in which a man emerges out of the water backward and is then clothed item by item.

The Surrealist movement (and not just as it is reflected in film) can be cited as an influence on Vigo: the emphasis on dream, fantasy, magic, imaginary experience and their relationship to reality; the experience of children; the deemphasis on logic; attitudes toward society and revolution, love and women. Other strategies, such as the spatial and temporal discontinuities so vital to Vigo’s work, can also be related to Surrealist art.

Although documentary evidence is lacking on the cinematic influence of the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, especially Eisenstein and Vertov on Vigo, his relationship to Vertov through his cameraman Boris Kaufman, Vertov’s brother, is too tempting to ignore. In addition, the resemblance between Vertov’s films and A Propos de Nice is striking. Essentially, Vigo learned from the Russians the use of montage, the juxtaposition of diverse and unrelated materials to create new meaning. Although the direct application of montage techniques is most evident in A Propos de Nice, the whole of Vigo’s work can be seen as a constant reapplication of the montage principles of juxtaposition in different modes and situations.

Taris is the least known of Vigo’s four films. One would not call this film a “masterpiece” in comparison to the other three. It is a film that suggests limited words of approbation: “delightful,” “charming.” Taris is unquestionably a work in a minor mode. It is brief—about ten minutes long. Neither its subject nor the treatment of the subject seems “important.” The kind of playful humor, part parody and part fantasy, that constitutes the essential flavor of the film does not seem “serious” compared to the biting social humor of A Propos de Nice or the anarchic humor of Zéro de Conduite.

Yet Taris is an achievement in its perfect realization of this particular minor mode, It deftly blends and crosses several different genres—documentary, parody, fantasy—with a subtle balance and rare lightness of touch. Taris seems to slide between modes, ultimately creating its own very singular mode, and it is in this singularity that the film’s value lies.

Taris also anticipates certain basic elements in both Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante. As Vigo’s first sound film, it sets forth his use of sound in the subsequent films. In Taris, Vigo adapts some of the spatial strategies from A Propos de Nice—e.g., the use of radical shooting angles—to new purposes, developing some new spatial strategies important to the next two films. He also begins to work with several editing strategies, mainly, the presence of major spatial and temporal discontinuities on the cut, basic to the later films. Finally, Vigo continues to use transformational, magical cinematic techniques, discovering new possibilities vital to Zéro de Conduite.

Taris is ostensibly a documentary film of a relatively familiar type—the sports portrait film that was a popular genre in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Among other things, it reflected the cult of the athlete in literary circles, such as in the writings of Hemingway and Montherlant. The genre reached its culmination in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1938. As a free genre, it permitted and encouraged formal experimentation. An example is Jean Lods’ film Le Mile (1932), which resembles Vigo’s work. The points of resemblance include the use of very free camera movements, synthetic sound patterns, overhead camera angles, free cross-cutting among different sports, major spatial and temporal discontinuities, and magic techniques, all essential to Vigo’s filmmaking.

Vigo’s film is about a champion swimmer, Jean Taris, and shows him racing, practicing and talking about swimming. It can be considered an instructional documentary since almost all of Taris’ commentary is explanatory—how to do certain things (the start, the turn, the backstroke, breathing)—and the imagery is largely illustrative of the instructions.

However, the straightforward documentary becomes only a point of departure for Vigo. He clearly has something else in mind. Taris is a film involved in a systematic subversion of many of the values and characteristics of the documentary. It adopts the pretext of documentary, but ends in a mode much closer to fantasy.

Titles and an acknowledgment to the Club de France, the swimming club where the film was photographed, start the film. The background music is a light, bouncy song, first played by a band, then sung. The decidedly humorous air to the song immediately sets a playful tone which will be carried on throughout the film. During the fade-out after the titles, crowd noises are heard, and an announcer begins to introduce Taris, telling what swimming records he holds. The announcer is then seen holding a huge megaphone, and the camera tracks in toward him, emphasizing the megaphone at his mouth. The effect of the shot is humorous—the exaggeration in the size of the megaphone mimicking the loudness of the announcer’s voice.

Three shots of Taris poised for the start of the race follow: first, a close shot from directly in front of him; second, from directly overhead, looking straight down; and third, from in front again, but further away. Each shot is brief, and the brevity together with the radical change in angle creates a staccato effect. The three shots, all of the same subject in the same position, are used for dramatic effect—to dynamize the start of the race. In the context of the subsequent shots, they possess a degree of comic hyperbole.

The race begins. The swimmers go one length of the pool and back. A major subverting technique is used in covering this race. The master shot is a traditional enough panning shot, following the swimmers up the pool and back. However, this shot is clearly in slightly accelerated motion. The effect, once again, is humorous, the fast motion hyperbolizing the idea of speed which is the prime value of the race. Instead of recording the race straightforwardly, Vigo treats it as an object of humor, mechanically exaggerating the speed beyond the level of human attainment. During the race, there are three brief inserted close-ups of Taris taken in normal speed, one on his way down the length of the pool and two on the way back. They cut off the space of the rest of the race and because of the difference in speed, these inserted shots appear mismatched. They are in discontinuity with the master shot of the action. Just as in A Propos de Nice, where Vigo purposefully allowed certain editing relationships (for example, in point of view situations) to appear clearly synthetic, here he interrupts the accelerated flow of the race with spatially and temporally discontinuous shots.

The strategies of discontinuity constitute a major esthetic principle in Vigo’s films. Another brief example occurs at the end of the race with a quick close-up of Taris’ hand touching the end of the pool, signifying his victory. Up to this point, the swimmers had been racing from screen left to screen right. But the edge of the pool is at screen left and Taris’ hand comes from the right to touch it. The direction of movement is reversed but the shot is so brief that the reversal is barely noticeable. Almost subliminally, it contributes to the atmosphere of spatial disorientation that becomes much more evident as the film progresses.

The next shot shows Taris immediately after the race, smiling at a motion picture camera visible within the frame. Taris’ cheerful demeanor, which in one form or another sets the tone for most of the film, and the presence of the camera within the shot are significant. The element of humor—Taris playing to the camera and happily going through the ritual of post race posing—and the open acknowledgment of the camera in the making of the film can be considered subverting elements. This is the only time the camera is seen, but not the only time it is acknowledged. On several occasions Taris looks right at the camera, calling attention to its presence. Further, the camera’s angle in relation to Taris is high, Vigo appropriately choosing to show the taking of an overhead shot, a distinguishing characteristic of his style.

Following the race, the central section of the film begins. Taris talks about swimming in a voice-over commentary of general and introductory remarks, discussing among other things how water becomes a home as much for people as for fish. As he talks there are several humorous shots of people learning to swim.The images all undercut Taris’ seriousness. Playfulness predominates, never allowing the commentary to get too carried away with itself.

As this sequence develops, Taris begins to talk about the fundamentals of swimming. First, he discusses the start. He is seen swimming around. Suddenly, through reverse motion, he emerges backward out of the water and lands on the edge of the pool, poised to start. After several shots of him in this position, he dives into the water. The process is repeated: Taris jumps out of the water, poises to start, and dives in. The use of the magical technique—reverse motion—is the key to this section. It catches the audience off guard, providing a humorous surprise. The playfulness evident throughout the film embraces these special cinematic techniques—accelerated motion in the race, reverse motion here. Logic is suspended.

One other effect in this sequence is important. On both occasions that Taris comes out of the pool there are two shots of him poised in the start position, taken from very different angles so that there is a conflict of directionality. Again Vigo ignores the rules of matching lines of screen direction. A spatial ambiguity is briefly suggested if not yet completely realized.

Following the instructions on how to do the start, a series of other techniques are discussed and demonstrated—how to kick, how to do the backstroke, how to breathe, how to turn. A distinct pattern of the relationship of sound and image emerges. There are three kinds of sound which alternate: Taris’ voice-over commentary, splashing water, and silence. There are two kinds of imagery. In one, Taris illustrates the techniques of kicking legs or breathing or the backstroke or the turn; such demonstration shots are usually close-ups and in series. In the second, Taris also illustrates the techniques but the shots are in slow motion. This causes a major shift in the experience of the imagery, temporarily altering the mode of presentation. The demonstration shots are functional, of interest principally for the techniques they exemplify. The slow-motion shots are much more contemplative. They retard the action of the film, enabling it to be observed for its appearance, for the way it looks, rather than for what it shows. Slow motion creates special visual effects which are interesting in themselves. For instance, the movement of arms or legs or splashing water in slow motion constitutes beautiful visual material.

In terms of sound and image patterns, the voice-over commentary and the splashing water alternate in accompaniment with the natural motion demonstration shots. Silence always accompanies the slow-motion shots. The relationship of the two sounds and the demonstration imagery is complex. Usually, there are several successive shots of each technique. Sometimes the sound will change from commentary to splashing water on a cut, reinforcing the power of the cut. Or sound will change during a shot. Or there will be a cut to another image while the sound stays constant. This complex sound-image editing produces a variety of possible cuts, either strong, with image and sound changing together, or soft, in which one element changes while the other stays constant. These softer cuts are confusing in their effect. The senses of hearing and seeing become confused as the cutting pattern is established and contradicted.

The editing from one sound to another is based on an antinaturalistic principle. The action in the images is always the same—some form of swimming—and in natural circumstances would be accompanied by the splashing sound. However, Vigo cuts off the splashing when commentary is heard, and clearly alternates sounds which are not meant as naturalistic accompaniment. The commentary and the splashing are separate sounds, orchestrated synthetically. This handling of the sounds strongly affects the impact of the moments of silence. Because the cutting from one sound to another is so noticeable, the absence of sound becomes equally noticeable, a kind of presence. Silence, brought to the level of consciousness, becomes palpable and adds greatly to the effect of these shots by augmenting the distension of slow motion. Silence and slow motion create a mysterious atmosphere.

At several points another kind of imagery emerges involving shots taken underwater. Although they are demonstration shots, they have a special visual effect analogous to the slow motion shots. The water mediates the space between the camera and the moving body and slows the action of the body. The sense of volume of space has to be rethought. Coordinates by which a space is usually judged—height, width, depth—are obscured. The space is not empty like the air in a room or a landscape. It is filled with water; there are no visible confines—walls, floor, ceiling. In most of these shots, Taris is swimming on the surface of the water; the camera points toward him; the surface provides a spatial boundary but a distant one, sensed but not distinctly seen. The underwater space is a transforming one. During these underwater shots, the sound pattern for demonstration imagery is broken. Instead of alternating voice-over commentary and splashing, Vigo alternates commentary and silence. This is the only time that silence accompanies demonstration shots. As with the slow motion, it adds to the mysterious effect, defining this strange, obscure underwater space.

The general spatial situation of this lengthy sequence is important. After the section demonstrating the start, there is a strong sense of spatial ambiguity. Many factors are responsible. First, the perimeter of the pool is seldom, if ever, shown. The race sequence at the beginning of the film establishes the space of action by panning from one end of the pool to the other and back. The section on the start respects this geography since it takes place at the edge of the pool. But from that point on, the perimeter of the pool is rarely seen again. Almost all the shooting is at the center of the pool, in close-up. This cuts off the surrounding space and eliminates coordinates—that is, the pool sides—that define right–left, top–bottom, or background–foreground action.

Another reason for the spatial ambiguity is that it is virtually impossible to judge the angle or direction of a shot. Taris is seen heading in a different direction in almost every image either because he has changed direction or because he is photographed from different angles. The shots are never long enough for Taris’ movement to be given a sense of direction. The frequent overhead and underwater shots also have their own different, disorienting spatial qualities, which results in a spatial ambiguity that cuts off the action of the film from its surroundings, the film moving toward the breakdown of depicted spatial and temporal relationships of “the real world.” This ambiguity subverts the documentary style and transforms it into a style best characterized as fantasy, hallucination, or dream. The film starts in the relatively realistic situation of the race, but even then accelerated motion and the spatiotemporal discontinuities subvert and transform. The constant humor undercuts the seriousness of the commentary, creating an atmosphere in which unrealities are possible. Reverse motion confirms this possibility. The extended demonstration sequence creates a special space that is localized around Taris. It isolates him in water, away from surrounding space. It is a private space. Slow motion, underwater shots, silence, and restriction of narrative progression add a temporal dimension. The private space has its own time sense, disconnected from the real world.

In the last underwater shot Taris rises toward the top of the frame. There is a cut to the pool, above water. A “Whoosh” sound accompanies him as he emerges backward out of the water and lands at the pool’s edge. The comic tune which opens the film returns. By a quick, magical dissolve, Taris suddenly appears fully dressed, derby and all. In a magic superimposition, he departs, walking across the water. In an overhead shot, he doffs his derby to the camera, smiles, and walks off a second time. This scene is a return to reality after the departure from Taris’ private world, a return to the place of beginning—at the edge of the pool with the happy introductory song. Any resemblance to reality ends here. The scene is built entirely on transformational and apparitional techniques. Taris emerges out of the pool in reverse motion. He is clothed in a dissolve and walks on water in a superimposition. The two shots of departure contain a major space-time discontinuity. At the end of the first shot, Taris is moving across the pool into depth. In the overhead shot, he is standing still—as if he had retreated in time. After he doffs his derby and smiles, he walks off once again, this time toward the top of the frame. The space-time discontinuity is a variant of the magic techniques. Together, they form the key to Vigo’s style.

––Bill Simon