Zéro de Conduite (1933) and Jean Vigo’s short movies

“However paradoxical it may seem, the film studio’s ideal would be to produce only one film which would go on making money forever.”

‘Zéro de Conduite’, directed by Jean Vigo in 1933, is a short movie about a student rebellion in a boarding school. It’s an anarchic film that, after a sedate beginning, moves into surreal territory with fantastical elements. It was banned for ten years and it is easy to see how the anti-authoritarian and subversive scatological spirit of the film might have antagonised the establishment. Much like Lindsay Anderson’s later film ‘if…’, clearly influenced by Vigo, the film focuses on the children and turns the adults into buffoonish caricatures. I also watched Vigo’s other two short films, ‘À propos de Nice’ and ‘La Natation par Jean Taris’, both of which include this strange fantastical approach to their subjects, the former a presentation of the leisure activities in a French seaside town, the latter an intimate study of swimmer Jean Taris. Vigo warps reality through camera trickery and, in ‘Zéro de Conduite’, casting a child as an adult, and the effect of this is such that you never quite know how solid the foundations are beneath you as you watch his films. There’s also a touch of Truffaut’s ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ here in Vigo’s clearly personal antipathy towards institutions and, particularly, schools. It’s a high octane, dense political movie that also manages to be entirely accessible and fun. The jokes work even today and Vigo knows exactly which strings to pull to make his anarchist views felt.

Would I recommend it? Vigo only directed four movies, the final and most famous one is on my list. Judging by the technical skill and sense of fun that is evident in ‘Zéro de Conduite’, I’d suggest a Vigo marathon wouldn’t be an impossible feat. Also a double bill with ‘if…’ is an obvious choice, but also with ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’.

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