195. ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

Recommended

“In Zero, the school principal may be a fastidious, bearded midget and the drawing on a schoolboy’s notebook may suddenly turn into an animated cartoon, but the characters and settings still belong to a recognizable and even familiar universe. This is not simply an ordinary place where strange things occasionally happen, but a poetic universe we all instinctively know.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Vigo’s Secret”

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein, Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: On their first day back at boarding school after vacation, three boys are given a “zero for conduct” and Sunday detention for returning to bed after morning wake-up. Angry, they develop a plot to rebel and disrupt the school’s upcoming commemoration ceremony, and recruit a fourth boy into the scheme. Meanwhile, the school’s headmaster, a dwarf, and a mean monitor nicknamed “Beanpole” make life miserable for the children, while a friendly teacher amuses the boys but also earns the ire of the administration.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)
BACKGROUND:

  • Director Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.
  • The film’s odd length (45 minutes) reflects the financier’s belief that there was an untapped niche for medium-length films. Vigo cut his original feature-length treatment to the producer’s specifications.
  • The strange music that accompanies the pillow fight scene was composed by Maurice Jaubert, who wrote the theme, transcribed it in reverse, then recorded the inverted score. The tape was then played in reverse so that the original theme returned, but transformed.
  • The film was based partly on Vigo’s childhood experiences, and the character of Tabard (the boy who swears in class and refuses to apologize) was based on the director himself. The line Tabard speaks in defiance of his teachers is a direct quote of an infamous insult Vigo’s father addressed to the French government.
  • Zéro de conduite was banned by the Comité National du Cinema. The film contained the word “merde!” and two scenes of brief nudity, but it was suppressed not for obscenity but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Inexplicably passing on a still from the pillow-fight scene, we instead select an image from the climax at the final convocation. The headmaster sits in the front row next to a prefect in Napoleonic dress. As acrobats (dressed as soldiers) entertain with handstands and routines on pommel horses, a closeup reveals that the second row of VIPs are life-sized dummies. No wonder the children on the rooftop are about to rain debris down on the scene.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Zéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…) With its dwarf headmaster, puppet spectators and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner. The movie’s manic/comic tone, meandering pacing, and even its too-long-for-a-short, too-short-for a feature length add to its singularity. Jean Vigo was already breaking cinema’s rules when they were only a few years old.

Clip from Criterion Collection special feature for Zéro de conduite

COMMENTS:  By banning Zéro de conduite, Jean Vigo’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors unwittingly secured the director’s legend as one of film’s primeval rebels. From the perspective of today’s cinema patrons, who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters while they munch on popcorn, the idea that a movie with only flashes of nudity and a pair of “merdes!”—no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target—would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable. The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its generic “anti-French spirit.” Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too subversive for 1933 sensibilities.

Today, of course, the movie’s content is notably tame. In fact, if you’ve been exposed to any of the anti-authority movies made since Vigo’s film, you may go in expecting to see Nurse Ratchet-styled psychological abuse and sadistic cane lashings. But there isn’t even one blow delivered in Zéro, much less 400. The student’s major complaints are being awakened early in the morning and served beans meal after meal. Their teachers aren’t madmen and dictators, but ineffectual buffoons. The headmaster is a dwarf with a fake beard; far from being an imposing figure, he’s at eye level with the boys he lords over. The lack of real oppression and injustice here expresses Vigo’s libertarian philosophy far better than if he had overplayed his hand and identified authority with excessive cruelty. What the school is guilty of imposing on the children isn’t tyranny, but a dreary, drab, linear conformity: the rows of beds, the marching in lines, the short-pants uniforms. The boys don’t revolt against a corrupt social order; they rebel against the ridiculous notion of order itself. It’s the purest ideal of anarchy.

Children are natural anarchists, and Zéro de Conduite‘s wandering structure is full of digressions that romp around like schoolboys separated from the pack, which are only reluctantly corralled and cajoled into rejoining the main storyline. This format mirrors the director’s political and aesthetic views of freedom, which he sees as childlike and innocent. The movie begins in play, as two boys in a train compartment trade toys, tales and boyish tricks; but soon enough the stern monitor shows up to pack them off to the highly regimented school. It’s not an uproarious slapstick farce by any stretch of the imagination, but Zéro is indebted to silent comedy, in that passages are often scripted around gags rather than inserted to advance the plot. Some scenes are inserted specifically to take advantage of the talents of Jean Dasté, the “good” monitor who walks on his hands during class and takes the boys on an expedition where a mademoiselle catches his eye and leads him to stray from the appointed path. We are told that a revolution is coming, but we mostly see the children going about their daily activities, getting away with whatever petty mischief they can. It is only at the end, after the remarkably poetic pillow fight sequence and its feathers falling in slow motion, that true revolutionary fervor takes over the film; and then, it’s a dreamlike insurgency. The staff proceeds with convocation, hardly acknowledging the scope of the coup; a monitor seemingly forgets about the pillow riot and falls asleep, only to be tied up by the boys in the morning. The final reels seem like a boyish fantasy of rebellion rather than a real event, but then again the movie has gradually been building the tension between reality and impossibility since the boys imaginations were inspired to revolt by the crushing institutional mediocrity of the school.

Vigo wasn’t a card-carrying Surrealist, despite being a contemporary of the movement.  He nonetheless relied on a few of the same shocking, reality-busting techniques as the Un Chien Andalou crew.  His philosophical anarchism extends to the movie’s form; Zéro de conduite refuses to be restrained by logic or possibility.  There’s a scatterbrained teacher who breaks into a Charlie Chaplin impersonation during recess; a strange and unexplained childhood courtship ritual where a boy sits blindfolded while a girl hangs a globe on a wire above his head; and a cartoon sketch of Mr. Beanpole that animates and morphs into Napoleon. The children’s first revolt is a dreamlike pillow-fight with slow-motion and backwards sequences, scored to eerie music: a wordless anthem accompanied by a back-masked accordion.  (The music for this scene was actually written out first, then inverted and performed by musicians in reverse, then played backwards on the soundtrack to restore the original melody in a distorted form). The ridiculous headmaster keeps his hat under a glass dome on a mantlepiece that’s too high for him to reach without standing on his tiptoes. The weirdest touch of all may occur at the final ceremony that the boys disrupt as their climactic act of rebellion: the principal and his honored guests and associates sit in chairs in front of bleachers, watching soldiers performing on pommel horses.  The bourgeois dignitaries arrayed behind them are a row of life-sized dolls.

The seldom-seen Zéro de conduite is one of those films you used read about in musty old reference books (or, these days, on a cached blog entry buried deep in your bookmarks) that turns out to be slightly underwhelming when you finally see it.  The pacing is creaky, the tone located in an uncomfortable median between absurdity and anger. The grand revolution the film has been building towards consists of about thirty seconds of the boys throwing coconuts and pots down on the heads of the established order, who meekly depart, stage left, without putting up a fight.  This a noteworthy and highly original work, but had the French not banned the film, I doubt it would carry the legendary reputation it has today.  Censors are the best marketing department a movie can have. Zéro is worthwhile to see for its historical importance, and it’s a work of art, to be sure; but to my mind, it falls just short of masterpiece status.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a series of vignettes lampooning the faculty climaxed by a weird, dream-like rebellion of the entire student body. These amorphous scenes, strung together by a vague continuity may be art but they are also pretty chaotic.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (1947 re-release)

…one of the most famous of surrealist films, though it pales beside Buñuel and is chiefly valuable for being funny.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

“A wholly original creation, the film walks a narrow line between surrealist farce and social realism.”–Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Zero for Conduct (1933)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Zero de Conduite (1933) – The Criterion Collection – Despite the film being part of an anthology disc, the Criterion Collection has a standalone page devoted to Conduite, with a clip, an excerpt from a supplemental features, a very fine essay on the film by B. Kite, and an essay on Vigo by director (the fact that Almereyda’s name is the same as Vigo’s father’s anarchist pseudonym is a coincidence)

Zero de Conduite – Film (Movie) Plot and Review – Publications – A very nice synopsis by M.B. White and a very complete bibliography

Zero for Conduct – Lots of information on the film in this article from cinewiki.com

DVD INFO: While its combination of weirdness and reputation make Zéro de conduite the most significant title for our purposes, it’s not the headliner of the Criterion Collection’s 2-DVD “The Complete Jean Vigo” (buy). That honor goes to L’Atalante, Vigo’s only full-length feature, a masterpiece of sentimental romance about a barge captain who takes his young wife to live on board his vessel.  While this tale of love and betrayal is a surprisingly conventional work from the anarchistic Vigo, there are two famous impressionistic sequences that have a weird-ish poetry to them. In one, the captain (Dasté, the sympathetic teacher from Conduit) sees a vision of his wife floating in the muddy depths of the Seine; the other is a wispy, sadly erotic montage of the two lovers writhing in separate beds, connected only by a shadowed polka dot motif. The Criterion disc also contains Vigo’s only two shorts. Taris is a profile of a French swimming champion. It features beautiful underwater photography, but shows little true passion, and feels like work done for hire. Far more interesting is À propos de Nice, an experimental pseudo-documentary (some scenes are staged for comedic effects) on the vacation city of Nice, filmed partly during a street carnival. Nice features lots of crazy Dutch angles and pans, strange faces, juxtapositions (a shot of a primping woman is followed by an ostrich), and a healthy interest in sex (dig that upskirt camerawork!) There are a few sequences that qualify as lightly surrealist: tourists who turn into dolls and are raked along with the chips by a roulette croupier, a man with a politically incorrect case of sunburn, and a surprising nude scene. Like the rest of the disc, Nice won’t be to most modern tastes; but it’s fascinating because it was made before the rules were laid down, by a director making up a cinematic language as he went along. Vigo scholar Michael Temple provides commentary on each film in the set. A second disc is full of interviews and documentaries about Vigo, and also contains a (very short) animated tribute by fellow filmmaker Michel Gondry.

Criterion’s “The Complete Jean Vigo” is also available on a single Blu-ray (buy).

Zéro de conduite is in the public domain and may be viewed or downloaded at the Internet Archive, among other venues.

One thought on “195. ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)”

  1. Anyone who hasn’t watched “The Complete Jean Vigo” knows nothing about film. Sad to say, that was me until about ten years ago. What a genius. “Zéro de conduite” is the template for every anarchic school rebellion flick ever since. It’s many times more interesting than the tedious “If…” and others that are unjustly heralded. Good choice for weirdness too, even if I have little interest in that tag.

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