Zero for Conduct (1933)

directed by Jean Vigo

Plot Summary
A number of boys return to a French boarding school after vacation. They must follow certain behavioral codes in the school or receive a "zero for conduct" and be punished. One particular group of students plans to revolt against their tyrannical and eccentric schoolmasters during an alumni ceremony. When the event begins, the boys climb the roof of the school and rain tin cans and other garbage on the formal occasion and its participants.


Jean Vigo has become a legend in cinema history, completing only four relatively short films in his tragically brief career. Yet these works exhibit a poetic sensibility that has left critics fantasizing about where cinema would have gone had Vigo not died at the age of 29. Zero for Conduct shows his talent for combining social commentary and unique imagery, with the emphasis on the latter. The simple plot about children revolting against their instructors at boarding school is given a dream-like mood by fluidly mixing the objective with the subjective. Narrative is secondary, and what remains with the viewer are certain shots or sequences rather than a cohesive story line.

The film veers between different styles by using various camera tricks and odd shot angles. There are many high angle shots of the instructors, perhaps suggesting a certain superiority of the children. The film evokes a magical feeling for the students’ world; one of them makes a ball disappear and reappear while another jumps from behind a wall to catch something at just the right time. One interesting sequence has the only sympathetic instructor, Huguet, standing on his head and drawing a comic-looking picture of a man. When the other instructors come into the room and scold him for acting this way, the picture transforms through animation into a more stately looking character as if to correspond with the teachers’ more disciplined and proper view. This sequence suggests the schism that exists between how the children are taught to behave and how they want to behave. They may seem to be complying with the instructors’ wishes, but their rebellious nature exists just below the surface.

The boys are taken for a walk and quickly lose their leading instructor, only to rejoin him later without any apparent notice of their extended absence. The students understand how much they can get away with or how much they can indulge their natural instincts while still ostensibly obeying the instructors. Another example would be the boys ignoring their initial call to wake up until a more powerful and fearful instructor passes through. At this point they all rise from their beds in succession until he leaves the room. But his brief return catches the main characters playing the game too well and already back in bed, and he gives them a zero for conduct. The film also successfully evokes the children’s anarchic playfulness beginning with two of them entertaining each other on the train ride to school. The most memorable sequence in the film is the pillow fight, beautifully shot in slow motion. During this sequence the students line up into some kind of procession as the escaped pillow feathers glide slowly through the air, giving them the appearance of a strange army marching through a snowstorm. Earlier, as the dwarf principal speaks to a student about life, there is a quick cut to a frightful shot of this man extending his arms and saying, "anything can happen!" This statement sums up the tone and attitude of the film nicely.

The instructors and authority figures are generally shown to be tyrannical and decadent. One exception would be some of the dignitaries present during the boys’ bombardment who are not even alive—they are literally dummies that have been dressed up and sat in chairs. One of the monitors goes through and takes some of the students’ things while they are at recess. The principal struggles for some time to put his hat in just the right position on the mantle, illustrating the pedantic nature of the school. A skeleton is visually prominent in a shot beside one of the instructors, perhaps to imply the great difference between how the young and how the old see the world; regardless, it is not a positive symbol to which to be linked. Most disturbingly, it is also suggested that this instructor may hold some desire for one of the boys, Tabard, to whom he pays extra attention. The feelings this behavior engenders in the child are made clear when the principal asks him to apologize for shouting at the teacher earlier and encourages him to say what’s on his mind and how he feels. Tabard gives a succinct response: "Go to Hell!" If the boarding school represents a microcosm of society with the instructors standing in for those in power, it is no wonder that French authorities banned the film upon release. Between Vigo, Bunuel, Renoir, Godard, and others, the French bourgeois must be one of the most attacked and satirized groups in cinema.

This film has proven highly influential in film history and also includes a few references to previous works. The only instructor on the boys’ side is the Chaplinesque Huguet, and, indeed, one could see the little tramp joining forces with the rebellious students. As in Battleship Potemkin, the revolt is instigated by the group being angry with the food it is given; here, the problem is beans once too often rather than decaying meat. Vigo was a hero of the French New Wave, and some critics have seen parallels with Zero for Conduct and Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows. But the film that most closely resembles this one is Lindsay Anderson’s If… which uses older but similar characters and the same basic story line. Although several films have drawn from aspects of Zero for Conduct, its combination of poetic realism and surrealistic allegory have maintained its remarkable originality.

6 of 10

Please send me any comments you have about this review by clicking here.
© 1999

Back to the index of films.