A PROPOS DE NICE (Jean Vigo, 1929)

Crisp and exuberant, full of youthful iconoclasm, stingingly ironical, Jean Vigo’s documentary A propos de Nice satirizes the resort crowd on the French Riviera. Its restless camera, both in terms of movement and the rapid-change variety of camera angles and positions that Vigo devises with the assistance of cinematographer Boris Kaufman (Dziga Vertov’s brother), conjoins with the often frantic human activity to create a sense of exhaustion. Camera rotation, creating sideways and upside-down views of buildings, and a bit of fast motion only deepen the impression.
     Vigo contrasts reality/Nature to human artifice. Beach hotels in the opening aerial view, real, could pass for a studio miniature. The first “guests” and “tree” we see are plastic, and this “outdoor” scene is really indoors; suddenly a croupier’s rake removes the figures, and Vigo cuts to the rake doing its usual work, removing chips from a hotel gambling table. Subsequently there are shots of real trees, ocean, beach, sunlight.
     A huge papier-mâché head is being painted—the gargoylish satire of a resort guest. Later, it is one of a host of such monsters in a parade, with rows of onlookers oblivious to the mirror-image of themselves that (at least in Vigo’s mind) they are confronting. Conversations are “unnaturally” framed so that only one participant is visible. There is a montage of guests resting in the sun; their feet and legs are shot to seem strained and stressed. Guests aren’t relaxed but posing relaxed—a part of their fakeness. By contrast, hotel employees are shown busily at work, efficiently doing what needs to be done, and other proletarian faces appear genuinely animated. Vigo also contrasts posh guests with the nearby poverty of locals. Closeups of a soldier’s medals and a church-top cross expose some of the villains of the piece.

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