Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean Dasté, Robert le Flon, Du Verron, Delphin, Léon Larive, Madame Emile, Louis de Gonzague-Frick, Rafa Diligent, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein, Gérard de Bédarieux
Written by: Jean Vigo
Directed by: Jean Vigo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 41
Date: 18/03/2013

Zero for Conduct (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

School's Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When most people see Jean Vigo's two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L'Atalante (1934), they tend to prefer Zero for Conduct at first. It's Vigo's most personal work, more unrefined, reckless, and sloppy. It's no more poetic than L'Atalante, it's just that it's more potent, having to cram its ideas into a scant 43 minutes.

Zero for Conduct is basically the story of three boys stuck in a boys' school. The school is wretchedly bad. They serve nothing but beans (everyone calls the cook Mrs. Bean), the teachers are inept, and the dean is a dwarf with a huge beard who keeps his hat under glass. Sometimes this stuff plays like Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou and sometimes it's goofy, like a Little Rascals short. These three boys (whom I could never keep track of from among the other boys) dream up a plan to take over the school on Alumni day, which happens in a miraculous sequence in the last 10 minutes.

The boys begin by ripping up their bedding, throwing white feathers everywhere. Then Vigo takes the film into slow motion, as the boys line up for a parade. The floating feathers surround them, hanging in the air. Then our three heroes (plus one more) climb up on the roof, and begin pelting teachers with all kinds of debris. Then, they hop-frog along the rooftop to their escape, and run off into the sunset.

The print I saw of Zero for Conduct was very bad, and I had to watch it twice to try and make any sense of it. I found that it doesn't make any sense. You just have to let the weirdness and anarchy wash over you, and enjoy it like a fresh dip in a lake. The key thing about the movie is that Vigo is able to let his anxieties, passions, dreams, and feelings come out lucidly on the screen. He wasn't hiding anything. He was a great poet. (He died at the age of 29 of tuberculosis, having only completed 2 short films and 2 features.) Many filmmakers have been inspired by Vigo, including Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut (whose The 400 Blows was a tribute to this film), Lindsay Anderson (whose If... was a remake), and even Neil Jordan, who must have seen Zero for Conduct in order to make The Butcher Boy.

It's amazing how influential these two films are to have been remembered for more than sixty years, especially when they were barely released in their time. How many other filmmakers would have been remembered half a century later after only two films? Maybe Orson Welles and a few others. It goes to show the power of these images. Anyone who really loves the movies should see Zero for Conduct and L'Atalante and learn what film poetry really is.

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