“Do you want a zero in conduct?”
French director Jean Vigo made only two feature length films (and two short films) before dying at the age 29. L’Atalante is an much acclaimed film–but Zero de Conduite has fallen into obscurity. Upon its release, Zero de Conduite–a short tale of schoolboy rebellion–was banned in France. Perhaps it was judged too subversive–Vigo’s father Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (AKA Miguel Almareyda) was in his youth, a prominent anarchist. Vigo’s father later abandoned his anarchist beliefs, became mired in some shady political activities, and was murdered in jail.
The film begins with the return of various schoolboys to a strict boarding school. The school environment serves as a microcosm of French society–with those in charge, corrupt and dictatorial. The boys live on a diet on beans, and teachers search for sweets, which are then confiscated. The teachers threaten the boys with the dreaded “zero in conduct” if they misbehave, and of course, that principle only works if one cares about such things. It’s not long before three troublemakers–instigators Bruel, Caussat, and Colin–are identified. The film depicts a number of ridiculous rigid rules, and the boys’ reaction to them. While one teacher is tolerant–the Chaplinesque Huguet–other teachers are notoriously strict. One of the teachers even seems to have a questionable taste for one of the boys. After a particularly trivial infraction, the boys lead a revolt against authority on alumni day. In one unforgettable scene, a pillow fight rains feathers down on the rebellious boys as they somersault in a crowded dormitory.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible print. One scene takes place in a railway station at night, and it’s very difficult to make out some of the action. The sound is crackly, and white splotches appear on the print. In spite of all this, however, the film evokes the magical, irrepressible spirit of childhood, and it certainly revived the ecstasy of my rebellious schooldays. In French with English subtitles