Luce Vigo, the French critic and daughter of the beloved Jean Vigo, finds it funny: At 80 years of age, she's asked to reminisce about her father, who died at a mere 29, when she was but a tot. “It is very strange to be the grandmother of my own father!” the octogenarian quips.
The man behind the newlyweds-on-a-steamboat idyll L'Atalante (1934) and the children's revolution tale Zéro de Conduite (1933) has garnered generations of devotees. Friskily alive, his films — mostly stymied in Vigo's lifetime — have been a tonic to filmmakers and cineastes alike with their visual verve, disarming poignancy and playful humor.
On Sunday at UCLA, the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute will honor Vigo with an award and a rare 35mm screening of his best-known works. Ms. Vigo, who is in town to accept on her father's behalf, sees his personality and zeal invested in every frame. “Each time I see À propos de Nice” — Vigo's first, a 1930 minisymphony of the sun-drenched port city — “I feel how much my father is pleased after all his dreams of filming to have a camera in his hand, with what he can say with the camera.”
Born the son of an anarchist in a Paris attic full of cats, Vigo would obtain his first camera through the largesse of his wife's wealthy father. Soon after, he met his great collaborator, Boris Kaufman, the Soviet cameraman who excelled at both rich, compact interior shots and dynamic plein-air compositions (and who would later win an Oscar for On the Waterfront).
“The skin is very important in L'Atalante,” Ms. Vigo says. “Vigo wanted to film in very small stages, and in very close and small environments, so it felt that people were very close to one another.” Few romantic moments in movies match the squirmy excitement of the couple's embrace on deck, or their later montage-cut dreams of one another half-dressed in bed.
Even now, Ms. Vigo (who herself has been the subject of a tribute video by Jem Cohen) discovers new things in her father's works — such as a glimpse of her mother in the Paris dance scene of L'Atalante. And in the raucous uprising of Zéro de Conduite, Ms. Vigo sees the influence of her “anti-militarist” grandfather, who also died prematurely. But: “Vigo was not a sad man. Very often people say, Oh, he was ill, he lost his father in a jail. But he was full of desire, full of wit, and you feel it.” —Nicolas Rapold
JEAN VIGO TRIBUTE | Melnitz Hall at UCLA | Sun., April 10, 3 p.m. | institute.parajanov.com