Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite) is a bad boy of a featurette; the film was banned in France for 12 years after its initial 1933 release. But breaking rules and making stuffy authority figures angry is exactly its point. Part of the Steve McQueen Selects series of the NYFF’s 2020 Revivals slate, Jean Vigo’s short is an autobiographical look at the unruly schoolchildren attending an all-boys boarding school in France. The film’s title refers to a mark the rule-breaking boys would receive from school administrators which would bar them from weekend excursions, and its plot follows four young revolutionaries who become determined to cause an uprising and take the school back from their strict overlords.
This coming-of-age story is infused with nostalgia and remembrance of youthful exploits: young Tabard (Gérard de Bédarieux) was based on Vigo himself, while his accomplices Caussat (Louis Lefebvre), Bruel (Coco Golstein), and Colin (Gilbert Pruchon) were based on the director’s childhood friends. The headmaster and instructors are cruel — more concerned with appearances and enforcing discipline than monitoring the boys’ well-being. But despite the despotism of the school, there is immense heart to Vigo’s depiction of pre-teen anarchy, which becomes delirious as the film moves between dormitories and halls following the dumb antics of the students.
As the students make it their singular mission to disrupt their uptight school and cause comical chaos, they make a mockery of the conservative figures of authority they oppose. The boys enact their rebellion with an immense charm that’s impossible not to side with and feel invigorated by. Along with the sweet silliness, Zero for Conduct is loaded with social commentary. Vigo captures the division between the elite instructors and the pupils they repress and makes caricatures out of the snooping administrators and clownish teachers — it’s no wonder the French government bristled at how he satirized impotent figures of authority and made them out to be utter buffoons. The revolt is thrilling and theatrical as Tabard, Caussat, Bruel, and Colin go about inflicting terror with panache.
Zero for Conduct runs for a brisk 45 minutes, which can leave the pacing a bit rushed and some of the subplots and characters worthy of being fleshed out further. But while tight on time, it has no shortage of visual flair: most remarkable is the frenzied camerawork and editing that stage the attacks in the war against teachers via splendiferous set-pieces. The showstopper is an extraordinary pillow fight sequence filled with bursting pillows and rebellious energy.
Vigo ventures from the harsh realities of boarding school to the realms of daydream and fantasy as manipulations in the sound design and the speed of words and images produce an otherworldly atmosphere. While the young boys want to cause disruption, what they really crave is an escape; they dream of a better life beyond their confinement at school, and the film grants their fantasies for a while, allowing them to have moments of pure anarchic joy as seen in their pillow fight.
Tragically, Vigo died at the age of 29, just as he was bringing his radical spirit to French cinema. Yet his film has inspired countless other iconic depictions of rebellious young men — like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows — that keep his fight against authority alive. The festival restoration by Gaumont allows the beauty and imagination in this exaltation of angst to shine, and Vigo’s celebration of youth is something worth celebrating.