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how to turn such a matter-of-fact physical activity like swimming into cinema
Jean Vigo knows he can't be too bland with a subject like swimming, no matter how good the swimmer might be in his style and speed and graceful varieties of stroke (so to speak). Jean Taris is actually an excellent swimmer, as Vigo makes abundantly clear within the first minute: in a simple over-head shot, with the occasional close-up cut-away, we see Taris defeat his opponents in a swimming race lickety split. But it's how Vigo then treats the whole nature of how to instruct the audience on a topic that makes it worthwhile to find (it's available on you-tube, by the way). We hear the Taris voice-over describe the different movements that can be used- including the "new" one, called the breast-stroke- and that, simply, swimming cannot be taught indoors. Vigo puts his words into an assemblage of images that reminded me of the great scene in L'Atalante with the character Jean underwater, only here taken steps further, and visually it's always a wild little treat.
Like his Apropos de Nice movie, Vigo is out to explore possibilities with the frame and the camera and certain techniques that today might come off a tiny bit goofy, but nevertheless display a true resiliency on part of the filmmaker and his technical crew (notably Boris Kaufman). It's all experimentation, but it ends up working better in its favor due to the step-by-step narration and detail. A constant image is that of the swimmer going backwards out of the water into original diving pose, which doesn't lose its appeal as eye-catching. There are also the many tight close-ups from a multitude of angles as the swimmer goes about his instruction: his arms, his feet kicking, his face trying best not to somehow get too much water in the mouth while breathing. And perhaps the most interesting bit when we see the swimmer underwater, likely seen through an aquarium or some other safe place for the camera, and the Taris goes through many different movements. What begins as a relatively easy-going tutorial short on film, by way of the inventiveness of the filmmaker, becomes something much better- a subjective lesson in the art of swimming.
There's even a touch of the absurd to much of it, as is the way of the director in his works, like when he does show a man trying to swim indoors, on a chair. And the final images, by the way, are definitely the best, as one last time the swimmer comes up onto the side of the pool backwards, then is seen in a business suit, jacket and hat, and in a great super-imposition walks ahead into the water. Whatever it might mean, I can't say, but throughout as Vigo's eye follows this man on his lesson to those who wonder 'can I be like him', there are moments of wonderful exercises in limitless cinematic expression too. 8.5/10
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