Zéro de Conduite: zero for film convention and conformity, maximum score for lively presentation on social oppression

Jean Vigo, “Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au College” (1933)

One of four films made by French director Jean Vigo before his life was cut short at age 29 by sickness, this featurette is an unusual and goofy commentary on political and social repression and rigidity in French society in the 1930s through the prism of a boys’ boarding school. Four cheeky monkeys – Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard – find the strict boarding school regime unreasonable and ridiculous  and plot to rebel during a public commemoration that involves the school and the wider community. In a loosely structured plot that leads up to the rebellion, the children engage in various small acts of revolt in front of their horrified teachers. One young professor sympathises with the students and encourages them in their rebellion.

The film was filmed on a tight budget in a restricted time schedule and these constraints are reflected in the film’s admittedly cheap sets and general look and in the disjointed plot that brims with many unrealised ideas. Early on a student collects all his classmates’ glue pots and pours the glue behind a shelf of books but that’s about it for the prank they play on their teachers: presumably the glue dries and keeps the books stuck to the shelf for all eternity, to be touched let alone be tugged at never again. The resolution appears incomplete as the ring-leaders walk off into the far distance. Characters talk at one another rather than to each other and no-one carries on a conversation beyond one call and one response. The narrative has the appearance of a series of unrelated skits that merely take place in a common context. There are many surreal sequences and improbable characters, done so deliberately as satire: probably the most surreal character is the boarding-school headmaster who looks and speaks like a child wearing a long beard.

The acting is almost completely natural with children acting like children and not as little automatons mouthing lines they’ve learned. One teacher mimics the English actor Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role in his waddle with the twirling walking-stick. There are several passages that are completely silent save for Maurice Jaubert’s music soundtrack. The climactic scene is the pillow fight in the dormitory done entirely in silent slow motion with music: the kids charge down the passage-way, carrying one of their number like a king on a palanquin, while white feathers flutter down from the ceiling like manna to ancient Israelites.

Whatever viewers think of the loose and disjointed narrative, the message it conveys is clear and sharp: if people are pushed to their limits by governments and corporations wielding oppressive tools of control against them, those oppressors had better watch out – the oppressed will revolt and carry out acts of vandalism and violence, revelling in them all the way. At the same time, the film works as a joyful paean to the cheek and spirit of young children on the edge of adolescence, and suggests that if adults wish to shake off the shackles of outdated ideologies and political / economic systems, they should be as creative and full of verve as children.

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