Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 40 minutes
Original title: Zéro de conduite
Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.
The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.
Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).
Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.
Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.
The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle. They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.
As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.
The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.
Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.
The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.
The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.
Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.