by Aaron West
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Zéro de conduite is the most fully revealed of Vigo’s “social cinema.” Even though his anarchist politics were complicated, Zéro de conduite helps clear them up. In some respects it is a blueprint for exactly the type of anarchic revolution that Vigo longed for, yet it takes place in the unlikely setting of a young boy’s school.
The children in the boy’s home are characters that many can relate to. They push the boundaries of authority, and try to get away with whatever they can. They are into hijinx, practical jokes, and overall misbehavior. They are not a peaceful bunch, and they give it to their teachers at every opportunity, whether to their face or behind their backs. The only exception is Monsieur Huguet, who they find as an ally and a character that understands them.
The other teachers are impatient for any mischievousness, and they rule with an iron fist. “Zero for Conduct” is the punishment for any transgression. It means that they are not given their freedom on Sundays to visit family or friends, and instead are required to stay in school at detention. Furthermore, the teachers dole out the punishment arbitrarily and unfairly. Vigo is intending to portray this as a totalitarian state where the lower class’ (or children’s) rights are being impeded.
The children may be the goats, but they also get to be the heroes. With some assistance from the friendly teacher, they lay out plans for rebellion. The planning is carefully orchestrated and is not put into action until the authority tries to compromise one of the oppressed. It begins with an expletive, continues with a rowdy food fight, and the revolt is in progress. The children hoist their flag and march with exaltation. The sense of freedom and liberation is palpable, just as Vigo expects that it would be in reality. Even though the film is of revolution, it is combined with the exuberance of childhood merrymaking.
Zéro de conduite was banned for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is clear male nudity during the march scene. There is also the acknowledgement of a homosexual relationship between two males, one of which looks effeminate to easily be confused as a girl (full disclosure: I thought he was a she during the first viewing). Not only is it apparent on screen, but even the school officials take notice. In one scene when the pair are walking arm in arm, the headmaster tells another teacher that “we need to keep an eye on these two.” This was 1933, where the subject of homosexuality was barely even believed in common society, much less presented in the media arts. Finally, there was religious consecration as the children place one teacher in a crucifixion pose during the rebellion. This was too much for the censors.
While Zero for Conduct is an understandably controversial film that was a product of the post-Bolshevik era and Vigo’s politics, it is also far ahead of it’s time in film language. During the early years of French Poetic Realism, there had been plenty of radical images, but none that came close to Vigo’s penultimate film.