AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct
DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo
FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux
PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: 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 Lindsay Anderson (If…) With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner. Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.
COMMENTS: 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.
By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend. From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and 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 “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.” Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.
Today, of course, the movie 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 any real oppression and outrage 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.
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 ball that magically disappears and reappears; and a cartoon sketch of a “Mr. Beanpole” who 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 once 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 somewhat underwhelming when you finally see it. The pacing is creaky, the drama underdeveloped. 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. It’s a noteworthy and 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.
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 “The Complete Jean Vigo.” 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 visual language as he went along. It’s novel and enthusiastic enough to catch the interest of anyone serious about cinema. 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.
Zéro de conduite is in the public domain and may be viewed or downloaded at the Internet Archive, among other venues.
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)