The big movie company Gaumont decided to do a series of short films on sports as a way of scouting out promising young directors. Jean Vigo got the assignment of doing swimming via the champion, Jean Taris, “king of the waters.”
Vigo was apparently too inventive for Gaumont, and they got a more conventional director to do a few of the scenes. If you look closely, you’ll notice that Taris is wearing a black bathing suit in the conventional shots of his swimming his race, but a white bathing suit when he gets to the finish line for a Vigo-esque close-up.
What can one say about a film only nine minutes long? It consists of three parts.
First, we have more or less conventional filming of Taris racing and winning. Then we see some blubbery people clumsily playing around in the water. By contrast, Taris provides a swimming lesson prefaced by Vigo’s shot of a woman trying to learn to swim in her living room—first you have to get in the water, dummy. We get instruction from Taris on the crawl with details of arms, legs, breathing, the kick, then backstroke, breast stroke, the turnaround, the trudgen, the sidestroke. We finish the lesson with Taris clowning around underwater, presumably to show how much he is at ease in the water compared to the ordinary folk before the lesson.
Then, in a truly Vigo-esque touch, the third and last sequence jump-cuts from Taris in his bathing suit to Taris in bowler hat and topcoat. He is, after all, just a human being like the rest of us. Or is he? The final shot (double-exposed) has him walking on the pool water in his hat and coat like some kind of god—or an everyday sidewalk mortal..
Can we say of a nine-minute film that it has a theme, a governing idea? I think so, and I think it comes early in the film from the man with the megaphone calling the race. “Water is the swimmer’s element as it is for the fish.” We see how water is Taris’ element and very much not the element of the people flopping around in the pool. But an unstated theme: The camera is Vigo’s element. With his reverse camera shots (jumping the diving Taris back to the start), Taris’s underwater gambols, slow motion, speeded-up camera, and the final trick shot—yes, the camera is very much Vigo’s element as the water is Taris’s. .
It may be only nine minutes long, but it’s a delightful little film with its own charm and skill. It’s more than just a token of the amazing things yet to come from Jean Vigo.