In Profile: Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933)

Adam Scovell on comic drama Zéro de Conduite and the enduring influence of its young director, Jean Vigo…

The work of French director Jean Vigo has a phantom-like quality in the canon of French and European cinema. The few films that the director made — before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 29 — seem to have all in some way shaped and altered the direction of cinematic trends far beyond the era in which they were made.

As a figure of influence, Vigo seems to stalk a large number of directors, especially those who have come to directing from a critical background; no doubt admiring and being influenced by his work when their job was to get under the skin of the very medium itself.

With this sense of scope, it’s surprising to find that Vigo only directed four films before his untimely death. The sense of shock is heightened further to find that such fantastic pieces of cinema could be made at such a young age.

“The film follows a group of rebellious boarding house boys as they fight against the strict but comic tyranny of the school’s rules and teachers”

Vigo’s first two films were documentary shorts, but proposed to be something far more creative than a simple show-and-tell.  À Propos de Nice (1930, above) is a satirical impression of the town of Nice, hidden behind the veil of a picture-postcard travelogue, whilst Taris (1931) is a beautifully edited film essay on the French swimmer and athlete, Jean Taris. In both shorts, Vigo shows great potential in visually accomplishing a version of a reality, through highly stylised forms of editing and filming; a style that had clear potential for more fictional cinema.

This potential was realised in the first of Vigo’s two dramas, Zéro de Conduite (1933). Translated as Zero for Conduct, the film follows a group of rebellious boarding house boys as they fight against the strict but comic tyranny of the school’s rules and teachers. Running at just over 41 minutes, this curious film is a whole one minute over the classification of a ‘short’ film. This may not seem intriguing at first, until Vigo’s history of battles against censors, like many great filmmakers, contextualises the fact that, even in his short career, the viewer is potentially still not seeing the full picture of his work. It is an uncomfortable irony for a film about the repression of the young.

Zéro de conduite (1933)

Zéro is, however, a marvellous achievement, with a number of interesting and forever imitated aspects. The sheer gall of the narrative alone recalls a large number of films, especially from the late 1950s and 1960s, when rebellion was in the air and youth was gaining a voice. François Truffaut, who, after six years of watching films finally caught a double bill of Zéro with Vigo’s other drama L’Atalante (1934), is the most obviously indebted to Vigo’s surreal and witty depiction of youth. Vigo’s own experiences of moving from boarding house to boarding house clearly chimed with Truffaut’s desire to implant his own past into auteurism as he does in The 400 Blows (1959); its main character, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), could easily be a member of Zéro’s spirited class of fighters.

Truffaut would also borrow heavily from several of Zéro’s visual and narrative motifs, almost in homage to what appears to be his only real French predecessor (at least in terms of style and themes). The famous scene from The 400 Blows, where a teacher gradually loses his children on a day out to town, is taken from a very similar scene in Zéro in which the children cut corners to go on their own personal adventure, before eventually towing the line and meeting back with the teacher. Antoine Doinel’s classroom antics are also similar to that of Vigo’s; the children behaving with the attitude of frustrated older men, resulting in many humorous consequences.

“Zéro is filled to the brim with visual innovation — a feat considering the film’s short running time”

As well as some occasional shadowy moments, Zéro is filled to the brim with visual innovation — a feat considering the film’s short running time. The use of slow-motion in particular produces some astounding effects, and Vigo is almost Cocteau-like in his use of reversed film, animation, and jump-cut disappearances. He takes great pleasure in showing some of the children’s pasttimes, who can make footballs magically disappear, and shows them messing about with all sorts of trinkets and toys, clearly influencing the opening credits of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001).

With this surrealist edge, as well as the symbolic rebellion, there’s a clear link with another cinematic school battle; that of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968). Anderson’s film is also in some debt to Vigo, not only in recreating a roof-top final rebellion (albeit one with more violence and frustration) but also incorporating Zéro’s surrealism. Vigo’s slow-motion precession as the rebellion starts reminds me of a number of similar sequences in Anderson’s film; especially the gym scene, where the same dream-like quality is attained, representing inner freedom for the repressed and hard-done-by classmates.

As mentioned, Vigo would go on from Zéro to make his only feature film, L’Atalante (1934). The film regularly zips in and out of ‘greatest ever film’ polls (including Sight & Sound‘s) and is one of the certainties in the canon of cinematic greats; a huge achievement for a first, and sadly only, feature film.

In Zéro de Conduite, Vigo proved his fight for creative expression in a film that has left an easily traceable mark on cinema as a whole. It may be short, but sparks that start fireworks often are.

Adam Scovell

See Zéro de Conduite at FACT, Liverpool, 6.30pm, Wednesday 27 August 2014 — shown as part of Liverpool Biennial’s Sharon Lockhart film programme

Watch it in full on Youtube here

Posted on 22/08/2014 by thedoublenegative