Jean Vigo died in 1934 while still a young man. With an output of less than 17,000 feet of film, he takes his place alongside Renoir and Clair as one of the three most influential figures in French cinema. His films have never been seen in Australia.
”Zero de Conduite”, made in 1933, has a theme rather than a story. The theme is the revolt of a number of boys against the repression of narrow discipline and evil living conditions in a little French boarding-school. It is realistic in so far as the surroundings are faithfully observed. But it is non-realistic (perhaps surrealistic] in its human relations.
The masters are presented as schoolboy minds conceive them. The Junior Master is a ''sport", so he develops into an acrobat who stands on his head in the classroom; imitates Charlie Chaplin: leads the boys in pursuit of a girl down the street.
The Vice-Principal is tall, darkly dressed, sinister in a broad-brimmed hat. He sneaks around the school, purloining and spying. He minces round the Principal of the school, who is represented as a dwarf with a black beard and a bowler hat. He is a dwarf because the boys despise him: black bearded and bowlered because they fear him and his final authority over them.
An interview with one boy culminates in a ferocious scream and melodramatic lighting and posture; he possesses or seems to possess the magic powers of a primitive witch doctor.
The plan for the revolt passes through various phases or episodes, culminating in the major revolt at night in the dormitory and another revolt at a Speech Day celebration attended by local officials dressed like ambassadors and firemen.
The dormitory revolt has all the beauty of a pagan ritual. It begins with a pillow fight, passes into a processional phase shot in slow motion as the boys move in formation, their night shirts like vestments, the feathers from their pillows pouring over them, and ends finally in the morning when the ineffectual dormitory master is strapped to his bed, which is tilted on end so that he leans forward in sleep like a saint over an altar.
The whole incident has a beauty which transcends the sordid surroundings of the school, and Maurice Jaubert's score is a remarkable example of the way in which music can enhance the emotional interpretation of a scene. The revolt in the playground on Speech Day closes the film in a riot of schoolboy anarchy.
The film requires sympathy from its audience and the desire to seek out its implications. In its way it is a minor masterpiece belonging to the best in the French Avant-garde movement.