There are as many ways to describe a city as there are people living in it. The Barbican’s ‘City Symphony’ season, part of its Silent Film and Live Music strand, gives us glimpses of urban life in the 1920s – filtered through the imagination of some of the era’s most experimental film-makers. The series opened with Berlin and New York and on Sunday, the focus was on France: with two cinematic collages, of Nice and France respectively, and a third film, a whimsical morsel of science fiction from René Clair.
Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1929) and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que Les Heures (1926) are both equally determined to whisk away the curtain and show us the seedier side of their chosen cities. Vigo begins with a flash of fireworks and a swooping birds-eye view of Nice, as if coming into land in a plane, for a holiday.
This sets up a pattern for the rest of the film, whereby the camera alternates between extremely high and low angles – between the glamorous tourists with their oversized furs and copies of the Daily Telegraph and the waiters and streetsweepers who attend to them. The camera swings, loops and finds itself at the top or the very bottom of the palm trees, disorienting the audience – and shaking up our perception of Nice as the playground of the idle rich.
Nice is a city that works hard for a living: we are shown the carnival, but also the labour that goes into building the gurning papier-mache masks. Vigo is trying to make the audience giddy and then bring us down to earth, to repulse us with his close-ups of litter and crispy-skinned sunbathers and to shock us, showing us the grubby petticoats not just of the carnival dancers but of the city itself.