When Jean Vigo, the son of a Catalan anarchist, meets Boris and Mikhail Kaufman of Man with a Movie Camera, they film À propos de Nice, a 25-minute travelogue film. Underlying the film is an exploration in the contrast of the daily activities between boulevardiers (French socialites), street cleaners, casino frequenters, and wait staff.
At age 24, reddish lumps of tuberculosis already lining his lungs, Vigo exchanges a sizable chunk of the $250 bestowed upon him by his father-in-law for a Debrie camera—a cubical contraption with a fat lens on the front, a peephole on the back, and a leather handle on top. This begins Vigo’s journey into the film industry.
À propos de Nice cracks open with a few seconds of fireworks, then an aerial shot of Nice, in glorious black and white, its harbour front meshed in with the Ligurian Sea. The film is silent, colourless, and free of dialogue. The film establishes a kind of poetic realism that would become ‘la mode’ in the 1930s.
The focus of the film is on the people. Men and women emit peals of laughter and swish their clothes. For the most part, the locals content themselves with pretending the camera isn’t there. They continue with their tasks whether that means painting papier-mâché masks, shearing palm trees, or sipping champagne.
An abundance of images is shown to us as we watch the film. We see the grimy youth forming a human colonnade—clad in costume and uniform, legs kicked out in dance. Followed by fistfuls of rice and a diocesan clad in black. The millipede-like convoy spilling from a church. A group of horses. The garments of balcony dancers cascading against the thumping of their slowed-down legs. The beach, fur coats, and amateur tennis. A grandmother touching her handkerchief to her eye. The fuming power plant.
Spend 20 minutes and fix your gaze on one of the earliest incarnations of ‘cinema of nothing.’ There are no explicit title cards, as in Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, declaring “this is a political film”—but in À propos de Nice, the politics are there and embedded by default.