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An early example of ultra-realism, this movie contrasts the quiet, bucolic life in the outskirts of Paris with the harsh, gory conditions inside the nearby slaughterhouses. Describes the ... See full summary »
A surrealistic, anarchistic, gleefully destructive delight.
Around the late 20s and early 30s, there was a vogue for 'a day in the life of the city'-type film, which did exactly what it said on the tin; following the city and its inhabitants from dawn to dusk, showing the breathing pulse of great metropoli(sic?). Although supposedly objective documentaries, these were rigidly contrived and structured, and, with the exception of Vertov's THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, generally tedious.
Vigo's short, A PROPOS DE NICE, photographed by Vertov's brother, bears superficial resemblances to this pointless genre. The film follows the day in the life of pleasure resort Nice, from the preparations of cafe staff in the morning, through the activities of the holidaymakers by day, to a nocturnal winding down. In this sense, it is predictably linear.
However, the film is not really like this at all, but a freewheeling melange of distortion, repetition, subversion. The linearity is chopped to bits, replace by extraordinary feats of imagery and montage. The film actually starts with a casino gaming board, and puppets of the typical bourgeois, generally English, holidaymaker, who, along with the chips, are swept aside.
Vigo was the son of an anarchist, and this goading of the bourgeois continues relentlessly, hilariously, apace. Their attempts at unruffled calm are rubbished by the film's dizzying inventiveness. Tilted camera angles mock respectable buildings; unflattering shots of the bourgeois, snoring, bored, flash by at bewildering speed. The rigidity of this society is shown in the geometric grids Vigo imposes, and the continuous references to all kinds of circles (palm trees, railway lines, umbrellas etc.).
Patriarchy is mocked by the ludicrous fetishiation of gangly phallic tumescences, such as tree trunks, or huge chimney stacks. The supposed objectivity of the documentary mode is undermined by the numerous trick effects, which perversely tell a greater truth. A dirty old bourgeois is seen to be mentally undressing the cross-legged women. The recurrent tides, the circularity, the images of destruction and death (monuments, gravestones) all give the lie to the bourgeois myth of escape from reality, and immortality.
The most prominent rupture of this civility is a carnival. Bakhtin once argued that every society allows one day a year for the carnivalesque, in which the topsy-turvy replaces everyday order - hostility and dissatisfaction is assuaged, and order is restored. Doubtless this was the case in real life here, but Vigo refutes this restoration in his film. The destruction is complete. Huge grotesque faces stride mockingly through the streets - the repressed returning - feverish dancing, insane clowning: all supervised and complicit with the police and authority.
But as the montage gathers sinister momentum, the distinctions between the carnivalesque and bourgeois reality blur heavily. The bourgeois resort, with its games, tides, and exotic animals, is compared to the poor quarter, with its gambling, rivulets of presumably urine, and skeletal cats. Objects become subjects and vice versa - a shot of a boat becomes that boat; people looking into the camera become a shot of that cameraman. The cinema is complicit in the bourgeoise spectacle - its dismantling is a hope for the overthrow of the dead, unimaginative bourgeois.
Simple games, such as tennis, become bizarre surrealistic rites. Once our eyes become attuned, everything looks strange - a man opening his cafe seems normal enough, but a man flinging umbrellas at tables is unnerving and odd. The carnival frenzy finally loses its clearcut role and spills into the film's form, disrupting everything in its wake. Goosestepping policemen are linked to lewd cancanning dancers, the one a complete mockery of the other.
Rather than the renewal and continuity of most 'day in the life' films, NICE ends with destruction and fire. And yet it is a refreshing fire, as the hearty laughs at the close suggest. Blow apart repressiveness, and everybody will be laughing. The film is an astonishing, inventive, febrile delight - after 20 minutes, you'll find yourself catching your breath - and itching to hit something.
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