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For some reason The Book is very excited about Jean Vigo. This French director has two movies in the Book, but I am less than impressed with any of them (Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante). I may be too plebeian to recognize his genius, but I suspect that the real reason for his fame is the fact that he died young. That usually works as a catalyst for fame.
In the case of Zéro de Conduit (Zero for Conduct) I am left with an uncertain feeling of what the purpose and message of the movie really is. This of course places it right up there with the Nouvelle Vague films of a much later age and I cannot rule out that this contributes to its fame. A few things are clear though.
Obviously Vigo is less than impressed with the old black school. The idiocy and futility of that school system is constantly exposed. This is seen in the strict but futile discipline of the dormitory, in the random punishment issued mostly to demonstrate the power of the teachers, the pedophile science teacher and a curriculum that is not even mentioned. From the children’s point of view they are sentenced to a prison with the only purpose to oppress them. The attitude of the school is symbolized by the very small headmaster with the far too big beard.
To highlight the petrified school the new teacher Mr. Huguet (Jean Dasté) is the open-minded liberated type who shows some sympathy for their situation and gives them some slack to the horror of the established teacher class.
The boys, for they are all boys on the school, on the other hand are as unruly as they get and are entirely bent on rebelling on anything relating to the school. They readily break any rule and even counting in the excuse that the school has certainly pushed them in that direction, they are taking it far.
So far this good. This theme we have seen in other movies and will usually end in some sort of rebellion. The problem here is that the necessary rebellion is very unfocussed. The rebellion is mostly for the sake of rebellion and does nothing to improve their or their friend’s situation, but is pure sabotage too easy to dismiss as the product of unruly boys. Their achievements can be summed up in a massive pillow fight and the bombardment of the celebration of the annual commemoration day from the roof while displaying a pirate flag. Hooray for defiance!
If anything the movie shows that this sort of school system is not really working. Power corrupts the teachers and in their little kingdom they rule undisputed. For some children this school system is a total disaster and they should never be there in the first place.
To take it a bit far this could be a criticism of fascism, but the school is just too ridiculous to qualify. It is just a plain stupid place.
I am also uncertain whether this is a comedy or a drama. Some things are so far out and ridiculous that it tends toward comedy, but it never becomes funny. Likewise the pranks the boys are pulling are just too desperate and futile to be really funny and amusing.
It leaves me indeed with a very unresolved feeling. I am just happy I did not attend that school. In fact my school was a public day school, run by the municipality and open for anybody regardless of gender, wealth or qualifications. We turned out quite well and nobody went to the roof to throw garbage at anybody.