Friday, March 4, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Zero for Conduct (1933)

Zero for Conduct (1933) *** ½
Directed by:
Jean Vigo.
Written By: Jean Vigo.
Starring: Jean Dasté (Surveillant Huguet), Robert le Flon (Surveillant Pète-Sec), Du Verron (Surveillant-Général Bec-de-Gaz), Delphin (Principal du Collège), Léon Larive (Professeur),
Louis Lefebvre (Caussat), Gilbert Pruchon (Colin), Coco Golstein (Bruel), Gérard de Bédarieux (Tabard).

Jean Vigo was just 29 years old when he died of Tuberculosis in 1934. His entire filmmaking career exists of four films – two of which I had never really heard of, and question whether or not they still exist, along with the two films for which he is most well known – Zero for Conduct (1933) and L’Atalante (1934). L’Atalante is the more famous of the two films – one of the greatest romances in cinema history, a seemingly simple story of a naïve young wife and her husband aboard his barge with his crew. But Zero for Conduct is a wonderful film as well. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but see the films it inspired in its brief, 40 minute running time – most notably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s If…. There is a reason why Vigo was one of the biggest influences on the French New Wave that had such an impact on filmmaking in the 1960s.

Zero for Conduct falls into the category of boarding school dramas – which seem to take on two forms, the nostalgic look back in time of Goodbye Mr. Chips, or the darker version presented here and elsewhere. The film is about a group of boys returning to boarding school after vacation – and immediately falling back into the same routines that make them feel like prisoners, not students. With the exception of one teacher, who is whimsical and does a mean Chaplin impression, the teachers at the school are rigid and cold – bordering on cruel at points. The headmaster is played by a little person, which is probably Vigo’s point, that he is a small, and petty little man who values order above all else. Four of the boys in the school decide to rebel against the structure and discipline, and throw a wrench into the plans for an anniversary celebration for the school.

Vigo’s visual mastery is on full display in the film. It isn’t realism he is after, more a dreamier look and feel- something that would be even more apparent in L’Atalante. His film is full of images that remain in your mind after the film ends – the schoolboys being led through the streets by their teacher comes to mind, as does the iconic final shot of the four main boys arm in arm walking down the street. Vigo was, for lack of a better term, a visual poet and his images here stand alongside some of the best in cinema history.

If I knock the film down a grade, it is only because I think ultimately Zero for Conduct is more interesting for how it led to L’Atalante, the true masterpiece in Vigo’s filmography, and how it inspired films like The 400 Blows and If, then because of anything in the film itself. The characters are rather broadly sketched – not as much as individuals, but what they represent. This was most likely a necessity of the film’s length, and because Vigo’s point is more about the French school system than about these characters as people (and he obviously touched a nerve, as this film was banned for 13 years following its release). The film is undeniably from the same maker as L’Atalante, and it’s interesting to see his visual style evolve from one film to the next – and its one of the great tragedies of the cinema that it did not get a chance to evolve further because of Vigo’s untimely death.

As for The 400 Blows, it may well be Truffaut’s greatest film as a director, and it is unimaginable without Zero for Conduct. But Truffaut’s film is a deeper film – a more fully realized one, that takes aim at the same targets as Vigo’s, but hits them more dead on because of its character, and because its view is more expansive – for example in its depiction of its hero escape into cinema. And as for Lindsay Anderson’s If, it must be said that Zero for Conduct is certainly the inspiration for that film, as the essentially follow the same plot, to the same inevitable conclusion (even if in Vigo’s version, the children merely throw things from the roof, while in Anderson’s they open fire with rifles). But Anderson’s film is much harsher than Vigo – less whimsical.

Ultimately, I think Zero for Conduct is a near great film – and one that takes on added dimensions when you know what came next for Vigo, and what the film would end up inspiring 30 years later. It saddens me that I have nowhere else to go to explore the work of Jean Vigo.

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