French filmmaker Jean Vigo died in 1934, at the age of 29, from a case of tuberculosis that had dogged him for years. His early death left us with only four films, all of which laid end to end are shorter in length than the first of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movies.
When he made “Zero for Conduct” in 1933, he had only made two short documentaries, and the film that followed, “L’Atlante,” his only feature and final film, regularly appears on lists of the best films ever made. In Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of the top 50 films ever made, conducted in 2012, it placed 12, just behind “Battleship Potemkin” and ahead of “Breathless” and “Apocalypse Now”.
“Zero for Conduct” perhaps is best known for its outsized influence, inspiring films like Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Lindsay Anderson’s “if….” It kicks off this semester’s series theme of “Troubled Youth,” and the troubles of the boarding school youth in the film are easily sourced to the incompetent, malicious, and grotesque teachers and supervisors who run their lives.
The students’ eventual revolt, depicted in the film, was threatening enough to the forces of order that the French Board of Censors banned its exhibition in France. This act of censorship contributed to the mythology of the film, and Vigo happily allowed the incorrect notion that ten minutes of footage had been cut out of the film to spread, as it helped explain away some of the film’s roughness and discontinuities, more properly the result of a fraught and hurried shooting schedule and Vigo’s improvisations during production, as well as an ill-timed illness that interrupted shooting.
Vigo based much of the events and characters in the film on his own memories of the boarding schools of his youth, as well as the prison experiences of his father, the well-known anarchist/socialist Miguel Almereyda. Aspects of Vigo himself can be seen in many of the boys in the film, though Rene Tabard, who is picked on by both young and old, and eventually stands up to the hypocrisy of his teachers, is perhaps most linked to the director’s own childhood.
“Zero for Conduct” is Vigo’s first film to fully exploit the technology of sound, but it still feels influenced by silent cinema throughout. The film’s opening minutes, save the musical score, could be a silent film, and the only tolerable adult in the film, the teacher Huguet, has the childlike innocence of a slapstick comedian, and even imitates Charlie Chaplin’s walk to entertain the children he is meant to be supervising.
Vigo is often associated with the loose style that came to be called poetic realism, most famously employed throughout the 1930s by Jean Renoir. Vigo’s link to this style is in his combination of an everyday realism with elements of fantasy. “Fantasy is the only interesting thing in life. I would like to push it to the point of zaniness,” Vigo said, and the most magical moments in “Zero for Conduct” are the ones that enter into a poetic fantasy, employing slow-motion, reverse motion, and other tricks to convey a dreamlike rebellion against the indignities of childhood. The film’s justifiably famous musical score, composed by Maurice Jaubert, contributes wonderfully to the effect of these moments.