Zero for Conduct

(Zéro de conduite, Jean Vigo, France, 1933)


"Young Devils at College": the secondary title of Zero for Conduct suggests a mild romp in the Carry On vein, but Jean Vigo's classic short film means business.

At stake in this vignette of childhood rebellion against an oppressive school institution is nothing less than a veritable Surrealist Manifesto – one whose cosmic dimension is assured by the final shot in which its young devils, triumphant on a rooftop, appear ready to take flight.

This is a terrific movie to spring on students unprepared for what they will see: full frontal nudity, scatological and body-obsessed humour, anti-religious blasphemy, insistent homoeroticism.

But it transcends the simple duality of youth versus authority (unlike its loose remake If... [1968]) via its vision of inescapable, polymorphous perversity: even the stuffiest teachers here are twisted, secretly wild at heart.

The hearty provocation happens as much on the level of form as content: the experiments with slow-motion, animation and trick photography are prodigious and wondrous.

Vigo had absorbed the avant-gardism of Buñuel and René Clair, but he also invented a unique aesthetic form: the "aquarium shot", a claustrophobic space in which strange apparitions are produced from every available corner and pocket – cinema as magic act.

MORE Vigo: L'Atalante

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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