An absurd, oppressive school is rocked by an anarchic revolution on the part of the free-spirited pupils
Jean Vigo, the hugely influential French filmmaker who died in 1934 at the age of 29, remains best known for the frequently re-released L'Atalante, his only feature film. The rest of his slender output consists of two sort-of surreal short documentaries and this brief, startling school story, which is basically William The Anarchist.
A precursor to Truffaut's Les 400 Coups in its sympathetic attitude to badly-behaved French children and to Lindsay Anderson's If in it's public school revolution finale, this 1933 picture is also a development of the kind of surreal film making Luis Bunuel and others were using to stir up riots in Paris back in the 20s and early 30s. Indeed, its commitment to filling up the school minor offence book - the title refers to the marks for conduct its heroes continually earn - resulted in Zero De Conduite being banned by the French censor until well after World War II.
Given its reputation for rabble rousing, this is actually a surprisingly gentle and lyrical film, absurd in its humour rather than vicious, as much in tune with Chaplin's world as Bunuel's. The teachers are mainly bourgeoise grotesques - a midget headmaster, a grossly fat science teacher - and a cross-section of adult authority figures are represented by dressed-up dummies in the big food fight finish, but all the children are monkeyish sprites, and the film allows their wonder and magic to take flight, with slow motion turning cigar smoke produced during a illicit gasping session and the unloosed feathers of a pillow-fight into hazy, fairytale images.
This is a very pro-child movie, and the only sympathetic adult is the teacher who enters into the spirit of things by larking around in lessons and produces a cartoon that comes to life. Like L'Atalante, it manages to be subversive, charming and melancholy at the same time and, if it has been so often imitated as to seem less original than it was, it still stands up as a minature classic.
A short film but a little classic from the late French filmmaker.