Jean Vigo, “Taris, Roi du L’Eau” (1931)
Sports documentaries don’t come any more poetic, beautiful and experimental than this early short by Jean Vigo about the 1930s French swimming champion Jean Taris. In just 10 minutes, Taris imparts lessons on how to swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and how to change direction using the swim blocks. There’s actually nothing about Taris’s early life, how he came to swimming, what made him decide to strive for championship natational glory and what he hopes to give back to society: the usual structure of sports documentaries, at least those made in Australia. As swimming lessons go, the film is not remarkable and is out-of-date, butterfly-stroking being all but unknown at the time, and possibly techniques are demonstrated in that film that are no longer being taught.
No, the true glory of this sports documentary lies in the fact that Vigo has made it and has brought avant-garde filming technique and narrative to make of the swimming lesson a poem in how humans can be at home underwater and fly freely about in a medium like a bird. A link between this documentary and Vigo’s other films exploring rebellion and freedom in a repressive society might be made here. The diving instruction is the key and the swimming lessons are the gateway into another world. The highlight of the film is the sequence of silent scenes in which Taris wriggles, turns and flies towards the camera and away from it like a flirtatious flighty creature, enticing the viewer to come follow him where he will.
The filming itself is quite extraordinary: in closing scenes, Vigo makes clothes appear suddenly on Taris standing by the edge of the pool; the swimmer then walks across the ground away from the camera in a scene superimposed over the pool itself. Taris looks back at the viewer, doffs his hat and continues to walk into the background, all while water is lapping and rippling behind him. It’s as if having given us the key and the directions to his world, the swimmer now expects that we will follow and enjoy the freedom (and presumably the equality and quality of life he enjoys also) that he has. The experimentation is not limited to the narrative structure and visuals: the voice-over swimming instructions alternate with the sounds of choppy water and this call-and-response soundtrack sets up a rhythm that can be hypnotic in effect.
Of course the short isn’t to be taken entirely seriously as demonstrated by the chirpy music, the diving scenes which include shots run backwards and a hilarious bit near the beginning where a man attempts to swim in a chair.
A minor work in what could have been a long and illustrious career in film-making for Vigo, this short is still outstanding for its treatment of a sport as an art-form in itself and a way of life that promises freedom.