Thoughts On: Zéro De Conduite (Zero For Conduct, 1933)
A controversial depiction of repressive school systems and rebellion.
Zéro De Conduite, or Zero For Conduct, is a semi-autobiographical film that draws from Jean Vigo’s experience in boarding school as a young child, and it uses a somewhat abstract narrative to project a comedic, surreal and child-like story of a rebellious uprising against boarding school teachers as lead by four students.
Made for 200,000 francs and with non-professional actors, this film can be seen as a precursor to the Italian Neorealist movement of the post-war era. Unfortunately, Zero For Conduct does suffer from a few problems due to budgetary constraints – the main problem concerning the sound design. This leaves a tension between a silent film and a talkie tone/aesthetic whilst reducing some of the abstract elements of the narrative to incoherent sequences. And this detail is not helped by the sometimes awkward edit that is scattered and lacking of clarity – a flaw that Vigo had to suffer so that he could keep the run time down. An example of this incoherence would be the ‘magic trick’ with a ball in the classroom. This sequence lacks a strong sense of character motivation, a motif that leaks through the entirety of the script, which is initially jarring, but begins to make sense as the style of the narrative becomes clearer.
It is then once the story settles and it becomes clear that this is a surreal film that its many moving parts begin to make a lot more sense. In such, the realism merging with surrealism presented by the conflict between the story’s structure and production establishes Zero For Conduct as a unique film for its time that, as with all of Vigo’s films, served as a medium for social commentary.
It is clear that Vigo designed this narrative to contain these elements of spectacle and realism through his reference to Chaplin with an imitation of The Tramp that one of the more lenient school masters performs. Much like Chaplin, Vigo draws upon an incredibly difficult childhood and funnels it into his narratives. A good point of comparison that can be made between Vigo and Chaplin would then be through Chaplin’s The Kid.
In the penultimate sequence of The Kid, Chaplin jumps into a surreal dream world in which he dies, goes to a heavenly version of reality, causes trouble as a promiscuous angel and then is shot by the police. We see a similar approach to narrative in the final sequence of Zero For Conduct where, following a lecture from the headmaster, there is a hard cut to the following night where all the children destroy their room. This is the most mesmerising sequence and makes about as much narrative sense as Chaplin’s dream sequence – though it has to be said that Chaplin structures his surreal sequence into the narrative with a much stronger projection of linear sense.
Underlying both the dream sequence and pillow fight sequence is a poetic evocation of impressionism, an approach to story which captures a subjective perception, one that has basis in reality and in turn comments on it. In such, the sequence from The Kid uses The Tramp’s paternal miseries to explore the hopes of an impoverished parent whilst the pillow fight from Zero For Conduct captures the frustrated dreams of suppressed and controlled young boys.
What is significant about Zero For Conduct alone is that it manages to apply this narrative concept to the entire form of a film instead of reserving it for a dream sequence that is easily swallowed and glanced past as ‘just a dream’. We see this through the camera movement and the edit; scenes like the penultimate lecture in the classroom with the panning, observational camera and the fractured jump into the next sequence. And, as implied, there is a strong sense of impressionism within this film; it ties a realist sensibility into the surreal sequences by capturing the perspective of a child and the likeness of memory (memories which we can assume belong to Vigo). This is what makes Zero For Conduct such a lasting and unique film; it captured an approach to story that not only played with the form of cinema, but used this in an effective and culturally impactful manner.
The latter idea is pretty undeniable when we consider the fact that Zero For Conduct was banned in France after shocking many audiences and offending split critics. The reason why this film was banned comes down to its ludicrous depiction of rebellion and clear commentary on societal paradigms involving a ruling minority oppressing and controlling a powerless majority. And it’s this sentiment, this frustration, that is the strongest element of this narrative. The fact that it got under the skin of so many certainly seems to validate the directness and poignancy of the narrative. And adding to the cultural significance of this film is certainly its influence on the New Wave auteur, François Truffaut, in his film The 400 Blows – which not only carries the same core emotion of frustration in a young boy, but directly references Zero For Conduct in its classroom sequences.
In conclusion, whilst Zero For Conduct is a dated film with a few faults, it manages to capture a unique aesthetic, structure and approach to story that projects timeless themes and in turn allows this movie to be, in many respects, transcendent nonetheless.
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