Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jean Vigo’s Surrealistic Zero De Conduite (Zero for Conduct)


I am not a big fan of surrealism and this 1933 French film is pretty darn surreal.

Under 45-minutes long, this Jean Vigo film was based on his own childhood experiences in a French boarding school. Vigo examines the struggle between freedom and authority. He uses his own unique style of poetic realism to create an allegory about the way the lower rungs of society view those who hold all the power. It must have been a thinly veiled allegory, because it was quickly banned in France.

zeropic4The storyline of this film about school children revolting against their teachers plays a secondary role to the visual elements presented by Vigo. At times it can be difficult to determine what is truly taking place. The children have a number of internal thoughts that are presented as happening in the external. It sometimes takes a moment to realize that what has happened is a farce. For example, when the children have their big “revolution” on the school roof and throw garbage and cans at alumnae at an alumni ceremony, it takes you a second to realize that the alumnae are just dressed up dummies—literally.

The most famous image from Zero De Conduite is zero1the slow-motion pillow fight. With feathers slowly floating through the air, the children eerily march as though they are an army caught in a snowstorm. I must admit, this innovative shot makes this film almost bearable—almost.

Not nearly as bad as other surreal “classics”, such as Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age D’Or (1930, Zero De Conduite just isn’t the type of film I enjoy. However, Vigo did make one surrealist film that I do like, L’Atalante (1934). Although Vigo only completed four short films before he died from blood poisoning at age 29, his work was highly influential on the French New Wave. Some critics believe that Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows was a direct descendant of Zero De Conduite.


  1. Kim, I haven't seen this film in many years, but don't remember disliking it. The short length works in its favor and I can see where it has certainly been influential. In addition to the French New Wave, I'd guess it had some influence on Lindsay Anderson's IF..., which blends realism and fantasy in a boarding school setting. Of the two films, I prefer IF..., but that may be due to the fact that its superior follow-up O LUCKY MAN! is one of my favorite films. Great choice for this month's theme, Kim!

  2. Kim, I am unfamiliar with Vigo's work, and I can see that such a film would not be everybody's cup of tea. I would love to see it, though, just to find out what my reaction would be. I like the concept of the story. I'm trying to bring to mind another surrealistic film that I might have liked, but for the life of me I can't think of one! So, I'll just have to find this one and experiment!
    Very interesting article. We usuallly write about movies we love, but it's kind of fun to write about a movie you don't like -- I had to do that with my Rich Man Poor Man post. Felt like a real critic!

  3. Kim, I have really enjoyed all of your postings on foreign films this month. I haven't seen any of Vigo's works but was saddened to hear that he died at such a young age. The pictures you posted are really intriguing: from the woodblock print with the title listed to the organized classroom scene to the no holds barred pillow fight. Thank you again for sharing your insight into French cinema. Great job!

  4. Kim, I think it's hard to write about a film of which you aren't very fond, but you've done a splendid job of covering Vigo's classic work. Many movies of a surreal nature, to include experimental or avante garde films, are undoubtedly an acquired taste. I actually really like Buñuel/Dalí's UN CHIEN ANDALOU (and clearly your opinion is the polar opposite), but I'm not a fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky's work, and I don't think I could do a write-up on any of his films. So I think it's impressive that you've written an intriguing piece which includes your personal opinion without that opinion dominating your post (and that would likely happen if I were to write about, say, Jodorowsky's EL TOPO). Great work as always, Kim!

  5. Rick, great point about Anderson's If. It was most probably influenced by Vigo's work as well.

    Becky, surreal films aren't for everybody. Some are good and some are just too "crazy" for me. I will review Vigo's L'Atalante later this month, and it is a nice film.

    Toto, I'm glad you are enjoying this month's theme. I really like foreign films--especially French films.

    Sark, I agree about Jodorowsky's El Topo--it is horrible. I am glad you can appreciate the way I write about films I don't like. Some people don't like to read reviews if they are in the negative. I was a little nervous about posting two this month (my next one is a "negative" too), but Rick said it was okay and so there you have it.