Prix Jean Vigo Films at MoMA

Forget Truffaut or Godard or even Renoir: Jean Vigo is the true patron saint of French cinema. He never made a bad movie; you can see all his work in one sitting; and his politics will always be reliably left of center. Since 1951, the Prix Jean Vigo Committee has awarded annual prizes in his name to a “French director notable for his independence of spirit and originality of style.” Starting February 10th and extending through December, the Museum of Modern Art is showing over forty winners, both features and shorts.

The Prix Jean Vigo is as much a political award as an artistic one. As in most cultural contests, winners are rewarded for their connections and networking skills as well as their talent.. The imprimatur of approval that accompanies the Prix Jean Vigo can buoy a winner’s subsequent film career, at least for a time. Unlike the US, many French directors break into the industry through reviews and criticism, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Olivier Assayas, for example. Godard shows up here for A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) screening on February 11 and 12. The movie passed from revolutionary to classic in a remarkably short period, its methods now appropriated by every director of sneaker ads or shampoo commercials who’s aiming for an “edgy” look. Without Breathless there would be no Nixon or Traffic, surely not what Godard intended.

The series includes two Assayas films, both scheduled in April. Paris S’eveille (Paris Wakes Up, 1991) captures his preoccupation with sex, drugs, and rock and roll in nascent form. Along with dialogue delivered at a blistering pace, you will find the director’s trademark digressions on motor scooter and Metro, and the inevitable humiliation of his pretty but unaware heroine.

His other film, co-directed with Luc Barnier, was originally projected behind a concert by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Assayas recorded one of their performances and used it as the score for this half-hour short, which tries to find a visual approximation for Sonic Youth’s druggy drone with hazy jungle landscapes that dissolve into blurry shots of flying jets. After the relatively austere Clean, which will be opening theatrically around the same time, “Concert Film” is either strikingly attuned to the music or annoyingly obscure.

Other films include worthy if predictable chestnuts and equally predictable “provocative” films that have struggled to find audiences both here and in France. Missing entirely are the bread-and-butter hits of French cinema, the comedies and romances and thrillers that support the prize-winners. No Luc Besson, for example, and certainly no Three Men and a Baby. On the other hand, Bruno Dumant, who won in 1997 for La Vie de Jésus (screening in October), is currently teaching film on various New York campuses following the economic and artistic debacle of his 29 Palms.

The winner in 1995 was Xavier Beauvois for his N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die), which opens the series on February 10. Beauvois also stars as an art school slacker who turns to drug dealing when he is diagnosed as HIV-positive. While stealing from his friends, mooching off druggies, and picking up naive girls for unprotected sex, Beauvois’ character shows moviegoers how to prepare and smoke crack without leaving incriminating evidence. Be prepared for plenty of long, slow pans across classical art works, proof enough for the jury of Beauvois’ independent spirit and original vision.

Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Die Too, 1953) directed by Nouvelle Vague fixtures Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, defines better than most shorts in the series the political underpinnings of the award. Ostensibly an examination of African art, the film is really an excuse to lambaste the United States and other, unspecified “racist” countries for stealing and then entombing African culture. Through stills and stock footage (most risibly of the Harlem Globetrotters), the directors first set out a case for the beauty and importance of African art before it was corrupted by colonials, then for the racism that pervades Western culture. Watching it, you can see how Marker would go on to manipulate still images in the masterful La Jetee (screening with Statues Die Too on May 4 and 6), and how Resnais would end up superimposing pictures of jellyfish on his characters’ heads in the ridiculous On connait la chanson (Same Old Song, 1997). You’ll also see politics as wrongheaded and childish as in any Lars van Trier film. The directors pay no attention to the technique or context of the art discussed, dismissing such issues with lines like “The botany of death is what we call culture.” Of course the directors would never admit that the methods they chose to shoot and edit the art–the backgrounds, angles, lighting, etc.–determine how viewers will respond to it. Their conclusions mix the condescending (“The black can be proud of his ancient civilization”) with the dunderheaded (“Racist countries allow their blacks to win Olympic medals”).

The light, effervescent La Passion selon Flormand (1970, scheduled for November) captures the actual spirit of a Vigo film like Zero de Conduite or A Propos de Nice. It follows elderly retirees who roller-skate on the plazas surrounding the Eiffel Tower, using marches and ballads played on a portable phonograph for a score. Filmed on 16mm with only two lenses and wild sound, La Passion… is as harmless and carefree as a balloon, and utterly devoid of politics–unless you want to speculate what the skaters were doing during World War II.

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