À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.

 

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