Zero de Conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

“War is declared! Down with teachers! Up with revolution!”

Zero de Conduite Poster

Synopsis:
A group of boys (Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Gerard de Bedarieux, and Constantin Goldstein-Kehler) at a repressive boarding school rebel against their teachers and midget headmaster (Delphin).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “remarkably subversive film” by writer/director Jean Vigo, which was banned by French censors until after World War II, is “poetic, surreal, and wildly comical.” Peary argues that “it’s a tribute to the honest spontaneity of children, their creativity, and their anarchical… spirit that causes them to wage war against the repressive rules of the hypocritical bourgeoisie”; whether or not one agrees with this broader Marxist reading of the boys’ action, Zero de Conduite certainly represents the rebellious spirit most of us wish we were brave enough to express during our own schooling. Indeed, the film managed to strike such a common nerve that it had a tremendous effect on future filmmakers — including Francois Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson, whose The 400 Blows (1959) and If… (1969), respectively, are each unique homages to this earlier film.

At only 41 minutes long, Zero de Conduite is more a series of loosely cohesive vignettes than a traditional narrative. Vigo’s primary concern is with establishing a specific milieu — a seedy boarding school somewhere in France, where fat old teachers feel free to fondle pretty young boys, the headmaster is a tyrannical midget, his assistant steals food from the boys, and the chef cooks beans for dinner night after night. As the “story” progresses, it heads in an increasingly surreal direction — but unlike Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930), for instance, Vigo’s screenplay only gradually reveals its fantastical turn, in a few delightfully select moments (a teacher’s drawing comes to animated life; the boys are somehow able to completely upturn a teacher’s bed while he’s sleeping). As with his only feature-length film, L’Atalante (1934), Vigo collaborated with cinematographer Boris Kaufman and composer Maurice Jaubert to create a number of provocative images and sequences — including the infamous “feather pillow fight” (watch for a surprising bit of frontal nudity as the boys progress in a slow motion parade afterward — Vigo was fearless), and the liberating finale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vigo’s surreal screenplay
    Zero de Conduite Surreal Drawing
    Zero de Conduite Surreal Bed
  • Many memorable images and sequences
    Zero de Conduite Procession
    Zero de Conduite Roof
  • Boris Kaufman’s cinematography
    Zero de Conduite Cinematography
  • Maurice Jaubert’s score

Must See?
Yes, as an historically important classic of French cinema.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Zero de Conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)”

  1. Agreed – a must as being “an historically important classic of French cinema”.

    I’d seen it before. Though I don’t find it as powerful as Vigo’s ‘L’Atalante’ of the following year, and though it doesn’t resonate for me personally, its influence on (as stated) films such as ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘If…’ – and who knows what else? – is so apparent that it deserves a viewing by ffs.

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