Obituary: Grégoire Vergneau

In those days, the Cannes Film Festival would drench its audience in darkness for a full minute before illuminating the screen with the work of their, carefully selected and hallowed, realisteurs. The darkness would, at first, bring the down the chatter and then it would take another ten seconds for the throat clearing to settle. Finally, by thirty seconds, it was theorized by the festival director that everyone would have forgotten they were sitting with several hundred people, the darkness would have slipped them into their shell in order to be cracked open by the blasting light of the screen. In 1963, Vergneau was screening his debut film, and he elected to insert 30 seconds of black into the start of his picture. Just as the audience’s restlessness started to return, the sound of the ocean was fading in. The audience gasped as the beauty of his opening shot dribbled into the focus on the huge screen. A low-angle underwater shot with the sun blazing through the surface above, in the foreground an octopus, with tentacles twisting in a torrent of knots, fruitlessly tries to claim victory over a harpoon that has been thrust into the water to kills it.

The film, and its opening shot, was lauded on the Croisette. Even Cousteau had not captured the water in such crystalline quality. It was not surprising that Vergneau had previously worked aboard the Calypso with Cousteau but had walked away from the assignment to work in cinema. This split from documentary was seen as a fair choice, given the achievement of his debut, but it emerged that cinema was also not for M. Verneau.

Born in Toulon, the second son of Henri Vergneau, a military doctor at the Naval École, Grégoire and his brother were raised for the military but warned against it. A stubborn and contradictory child, he resisted his father’s heavy-handed attempts at guidance. “He would make me growl with rage. Always looking set me on a career. I had grown some sunflowers in the garden and he bought me a book on botany. Bah! I fought another boy in school, a boy who was bullying my friend, and my father said ‘you have a keen sense of justice’ and he took me to a tribunal. It infuriated me that my instincts were constantly putting in motion a life, a choice. I hated it. I felt there was nothing laid out for me and I liked that.”

It took tragedy for him to drop his guard and empathize with his father. Like most boys, he needed some maturity and some knowledge of the world to comprehend his father’s opinion of him and his brother. It was the death of his mother, and it was a situation he explored in his first film. For him, the European man was desolated by its clinging to heroism. There was nothing more pitiable in society, for him, than a family of boys without a mother. “Because we know that the unit will not hold together. With my brother, there was a sudden, and brutal, competition; an intrinsic understanding. One of us would have to find a way to shed responsibility of our father. This was the way our societies functioned. Only one must stay to care for the ageing father, without a daughter or mother, it would be the ‘weaker’ of the sons.”

And so, his brother married young and started his own family. Grégoire would see that his only choice, to avoid the responsibility of care of his father, would be to make a more drastic decision. Thus, he relocated to Paris to be a photographer. He worked for several years as a studio photographer, and made a reasonable living taking photographs of families or dead pets. The new Rinka 16mm film cameras came onto the market and he was one of the first buyers. He shot around Paris and would meet one of Cousteau’s crew at a film convention, and a few months later found himself aboard the Calypso.

His time with Cousteau would be brief and volatile. Grégoire sensitivities toward bullies or tyrants was a constant in his life and he felt Cousteau always overstretched his authority. They warred constantly and Grégoire accused him of hurting some of the animals to be a part of his footage. He accused Cousteau of hypocrisy, Cousteau chided him as petty: “You wish to care for a stone while the sea is washing away the island.”

Vergneau abandoned the documentary, seeing it as no more artificial than movies. He had been working on his own script and took it to Cino del Duca, who championed the script until his death. It was eventually financed through Éclair and Bruno Fournier’s production company. It was shot in Corsica, the shoot lasting two months and the edit being finalized within a month. Fournier was touting Vergneau as a genius, and his experience on board the Calypso had trained him to meet deadlines.

Hollywood were sniffing around the director, the imagery and quality of his camera work was to be seen as a new benchmark for colour pictures. Vergneau, however, and not for the first or last time in his life, would walk away. He found the shoot to be a thunderously insulting experience. He wrote that he could not find his way in this life without walking ‘upon someone or something against their will’. He wanted something ‘purer’. During the shoot, he saw people working for no money “privileged little boys, who wanted to fuck the actresses, and then wealthy little girls, with artistic hearts, who had no access to any of the authority that would allow them to be anything other than something to grope after dinner.” The final insult for him was to discover that the famous shot of the octopus, was not as he had intended. His second unit had been sent with instruction to follow the Corsican fishermen and shot their daily graft – this was Vergneau’s idealism, no harm but for what is part of the livelihood of a community. Instead his crew purchased several octopus’ from the local market and killed them all. Vergneau said there was no poetry in such barbarity.

Vergneau was celebrated by some, but he scolded any such praise. “I am a fool”, he would say. “I cannot bare to exploit, but there is no other way to exist. At least not while we have these useless ideas of ‘success’. Ambition is nothing unless … well, let me correct it. You do not have ‘ambition’ unless you are willing to hurt to get your reward. This is the foundation of European ‘heroism’ and I want no part of it, which means I am hurt. I accept. A holy fool, I am, and I accept.”

Vergneau died in his father’s home aged 82.

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