À propos de Nice is the first film by Jean Vigo. Made in 1930, it set up the foundations upon which the filmmaker would construct his later works and an entire legacy, which would sadly be cut short by his untimely death just four years later, in 1934, at the age of 29.
Vigo had gotten to know the French riviera quite well, having landed a job in the Nice studios of the Franco-Film production company in 1928. While this film has all too easily been placed within the confines of the city symphony documentary in the past, À propos de Nice far from embraces a futuristic viewpoint or aims to celebrate the rise of the urban lifestyle and mass culture.
For one, he eyes the wealthy with unabashed contempt. The sequences documenting the carnival celebrations, for instance, are constantly disturbed by film speed alterations, unorthodox camera angles, constant intercuts and aggressive repetition, which rid them of all their implied superficial formal, exciting and aesthetic appeal. All this is visibly done with a clear intention in mind – the search for the “real” Nice, which is neither here, nor to be found in the shocking juxtaposition of the scantily clad Nice of the wealth with the garbage, open sewers of the poor classes living in the city’s slums. It is, however, something in between (or perhaps underneath) the two.
Vigo, along with cinematographer Boris Kaufman (the brother of Dziga Vertov, of the “mechanical eye” legacy), finds excitement in the impressionist beauty of its beach and the sea. He is also excited by the majesty of its architecture. The handheld camera movements seem to caress the outlines of such buildings, almost as if it were not enough for him to simply document them objectively. Ultimately, À propos de Nice is a film about finding beauty that transcends the confines of social classes, conventions, money or even language – there are no title cards and, of course, no narration, only images, informed, to be sure, by montage, but still unable to be expressed in an indexical and conformist manner.
Yet, À propos de Nice is also about the drama of seeing such beauty being constantly trampled upon, and how this trampling risks setting off a process of constant enrivonmental or impressionistic degredation. This also explains why Vigo’s scenes of Nice’s landscape must inevitably, through the power of cinema, resort to surrealism and satirical humour to fight back the aggression of the materialistic ideology which objective images would otherwise seem to celebrate.
One particular sequence seems therefore to represent Vigo’s intentions – a beautiful woman, sunbathing, is stripped naked, without moving, by cinema, through a filmic transition. Without her material glamour, she stands as a mere mortal…but which of the two is the most appealing imagery? – ★★★★★
À PROPOS DE NICE || 1930, France || Documentary || Directed by – Jean Vigo / Written by – Jean Vigo / Cinematography – Boris Kaufman / Running time: 25 minutes