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 Continue reading

148. SWEET MOVIE (1974)

“Not everything can be explained.”–Potemkin in Sweet Movie

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Carole Laure, , ,

PLOT: A billionaire marries a virgin beauty contest winner. Meanwhile, a Socialist ship captain sails down an Amsterdam canal with a Marx masthead and hold full of sugar and candy. The virgin escapes her wedding night and goes on a sexual odyssey around the world, while the ship captain lures a proletariat man and four children onto the ship and kills them.

Still from Sweet Movie (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Yugoslavian Dusan Makavejev made some highly regarded movies in the beginning of his career, but he really came to international notice when his strange psychosexual documentary WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was banned in his home country and he was exiled from the relatively liberal Communist state for making it. Makavejev landed in Canada where he made Sweet Movie. After the outraged reaction to this provocation, Makavejev did not direct a feature again for seven years.
  • Makavejev was a devotee of psychoanalyst William Reich (the “WR” of WR: Mysteries of the Organism). Reich began his career as a controversial but serious psychologist advocating total sexual freedom, but descended into madness and crankery in his later years when he claimed to have discovered a mysterious invisible energy named “orgone” that could cure cancer, among its other godlike properties. The film’s orgy performed by members of the Vienna Actionists’ commune under the leadership of performance artist Otto Mühl, who was also a follower of Reich’s teachings.
  • Makavejev turned down an invitation from Francis Ford Coppola to direct his script for Apocalypse Now to make Sweet Movie.
  • The black and white footage of corpses being disinterred is actual archival footage shot by the Nazis when they discovered the mass graves of the Katyn massacre, where the Soviets had murdered 22,000 Poles on Stalin’s orders in 1940.
  • The story was originally intended to follow the adventures of Miss World. Actress Carole Laure felt pressured on the set to perform sexual acts that made her uncomfortable, and she quit the production after shooting a scene in which she fondled a man’s flaccid penis. She later complained that the film was edited to make it appear that she engaged in more sexual activity than she actually had. To fill out the running time, Makavejev added the plot with Anna the ship captain.
  • The Polish government revoked actress and cabaret singer Anna Prucnal’s passport because of her involvement with Sweet Movie, and she was unable to return home for seven years.
  • Sweet Movie was banned in Britain (and in many other countries). In the United States it played with 4 minutes of scatology cut out.
  • Sweet Movie was one of two films selected as among the weirdest movies of all time in 366 Weird Movies 4th Reader’s Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After watching Sweet Movie, you’ll wish, in vain, that you could wash some of the images out of your mind—particularly the commune feast featuring food in all its forms, pre- and post-digestion. There are other moments that are strikingly beautiful, for example, Anna Planeta and Potemkin making love in a vat of sugar as a white mouse crawls over their bodies. For the most memorable image, however, we’ll go with the film’s first and funniest shock: the wedding night, when, after rubbing his new bride down with isopropyl alcohol while she clutches a crown of Christmas lights between her thighs, Mr. Dollars reveals his uniquely pimped-out phallus.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mixing beauty with disgust like sugar mixed with blood, Sweet Movie is a confused concoction of politics, sex, excreta, and Reichian psychology. Exiled director Dusan Makavejev abandoned all reason to make this movie, a fact which ironically makes its stabs at political satire ring hollow. Still, as a strange cinematic thing, Sweet Movie has an undeniable freak show appeal for those with strong stomachs: just be prepared for a cavalcade of unsimulated urine, puke, feces, mother’s milk, and pedophilia.


Unofficial 2013 trailer for Sweet Movie (made by Chelsea Sweetin of Montreal’s “Garden Scene Evenings”)

COMMENTS: Dusan Makavejev must have been very confused when he was making Sweet Movie, but probably even more so when he was editing Continue reading

LIST CANDIDATE: SWEET MOVIE (1974)

Sweet Movie has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Sweet Movie‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Dusan Makavejev

FEATURING: Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti,

PLOT: Two alternating stories: in one a virgin beauty queen escapes from her millionaire

Still from Sweet Movie (1974)

husband and his solid gold penis, while in the other a Socialist sea captain sails down an Amsterdam canal with a hold full of sugar and candy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Any movie where a virgin beauty queen is frightened on her wedding night by her billionaire husband’s solid gold penis is certainly weird enough to qualify for the List. My hesitation in anointing it as one of the 366 most notable weird movies of all time my belief that this is a really bad movie—not just a grotesque and disgusting film, but an empty, morally bankrupt, and frequently dull one, as well. (Despite it’s Criterionization, Sweet Movie‘s uninspiring 6.3 rating on IMDB coupled with a mediocre 47% positive on Rotten Tomatoes supports my suspicion that it’s not a film many people can admire). Sweet Movie, which glories in loving depictions of urine, feces, puke and blood, is like an arthouse version of Pink Flamingos, only with a puffed-up self-importance in place of that movie’s radical humor. The film has its defenders, who are encouraged to speak up in the comments section—because it will take some convincing for us to honor this greatly reviled provocation with a spot on the List.

COMMENTS: Sweet Movie mixes shock aesthetics with an unfocused political polemic; like blood and sugar, the two strategies prove immiscible, and so it’s like getting two bad movies for the price of one. It starts out with a promising satirical idea. A chastity belt manufacturer is holding a beauty contest, the prize being marriage to the richest man in the world. The winning contestant, beauteous Carole Laure, even has a glowing hymen! In an unrelated plotline, a ship is cruising down a canal in Amsterdam with a bust of Karl Marx jutting from the prow; a man dressed as a Potemkin-era Russian sailor tries to get the attention of captain Anna Prucnal from the shore. The movie quickly goes off the tracks, however, when “Miss Monde” escapes from her Continue reading

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading

LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

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

Recommended

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.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTZéro 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, 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 Continue reading