Thursday, 18 August 2011

1,001 Films: "Zéro de Conduite" (1933)

Among many other things, the vivid memories (or are they dreams?) of anarchic schooldays recalled by Jean Vigo in Zéro de Conduite serve as an antidote to the plodding, literal-minded order and dull good manners of the Harry Potter franchise. Rather than marginalising and tut-tutting at its instances of bad behaviour, the film centralises, even celebrates, messing around, sleeping in, ganging up, piling on, sneaking or running away, mouthing off, and - eventually - rising up and fighting back. The most celebrated sequence has become the slow-motion pillow fight that contains poignant hints of the real-world war these kids would later be obliged to participate in, but mostly the film is a love letter to the idea of the bunk and the skive that foster unrestrained creativity: Vigo finds something oppositional and cheering in the image of the pupil merrily smoking at his desk while his form tutor turns handstands.

The thesis would appear to be that the best grown-ups, the best teachers - the ones we like, and remember - are those who've retained some memory of what it is to be a child; the worst, being slow, desiccated and humourless, were never less (and never more) than wholly adult, preparing steaming vats of green beans deemed "good for you", when they'd much rather be wolfing down the same chocolate beloved of their charges. Vigo is militantly French in taking the side of the dormitory's mini-community against these joyless authority figures: in a pointedly Surrealist touch, he casts a dwarf in a patently false beard as the headmaster, diminishing his power from the outset. Like much else about Vigo's career, it's brief, but it had massive repercussions, not just for the French cinema - where there would be a direct correspondence between these pupils, Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and the questioning, take-no-shit students in Laurent Cantet's The Class - but for the cinema in general: it's the film that explains why Lindsay Anderson's If... was all the better for being so intrinsically un-English.

Zero de Conduite is available to rent as part of Artificial Eye's The Jean Vigo Collection boxset from

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