Zéro de conduite

Zéro de conduite

You know who doesn't love Zéro de conduite? The French government. Mostly because it's a bit of silly nonsense that manages to completely savage the French educational system in under 50 minutes. Impressively done.

The story centers on a group of French boys who are plotting to rebel at their strict, joyless boarding school. And we're not talking, "Hey, let's all drop our pencils at 2 pm, that would be hilarious," rebellion. Oh no. These boys are hardcore. They will accept nothing less than throwing off the yoke of their oppressors by staging a full-scale revolt that just so happens to coincide with Commemoration Day when the school is hosting a major event. Boy, it would be pretty embarrassing if all the students mutinied against their teachers and pelted alumni with random trash from the school's attic windows, wouldn't it?

Beyond nailing its portrayal of childhood rebellion, the film paints a picture of a repressive school system that fundamentally fails to understand, let alone meet, the needs of children. It's fairly damning, and also incredibly bold in how it represents the children's relationship with authority figures. I mean, this is a movie from 1933 that has a small child yelling at his headmaster, telling him that he's full of shit. There's a reason this movie was banned in France for 12 years until 1945 when the French presumably decided that they had rather enough to get be getting on with.

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Zéro de conduite has at least one foot firmly in the surrealist movement that brought us Un Chien Andalou a few years earlier. It integrates early special effects that allow characters to interact with figures in paintings and all sorts of other silly things. This adds an element of the absurd to the school which, combined with the overarching plot of an all-out student rebellion and the young new teacher who seems to be doing his very best impression of early Chaplin, make it clear that the filmmakers do not hold the bureaucratic French school system or indeed authority in general in particularly high regard.

If it has one foot in surrealism, it has the other in what would eventually become the French New Wave. You may, for example, detect a whiff of The 400 Blows in the film's realistic depiction of the exploits of young boys. Although the actions of the children are purposefully exaggerated, they nonetheless remain true to the way that kids think and interact with the world. They may not be realistic, necessarily, but they do feel real.

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Audiences of the time didn't really get Zéro de conduite, and the authorities were certainly not shy about voicing their disapproval of the film's subtext. For these reasons, it was largely ignored upon release or undermined as an unimportant, slight film with no real cinematic value. But the fact that Zéro de conduite was made at all and survives to be viewed by modern audiences feels just as subversive as the boys' act of occupying their school's attic in an attempt to stick it to the man.


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