Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct may contain more inspiration per minute than any other movie in history. This 44-minute tale of school boys turned insurrectionists launched a million rebellious youngster pictures and practically created Truffaut, who used Zero for Conduct to shape his first short, Les Mistons (1957), and certainly his first feature and greatest achievement, The 400 Blows (1959). But much more than just an source of inspiration, Zero for Conduct is an exhilarating film. Fun and funny, bizarre and surreal it bolts headlong towards its conclusion without worrying about such trivialities as why and what now.
This is movie about kids that is like a kid, consequences are foreign, magic is everywhere, and adults are either boorish buffoons or strange creatures, something to rebel against lest you turn into them. There’s the dour old man, nicknamed Tight-ass, who presides over the children’s sleeping quarters like a jailor. He may be the prototype of The 400 Blows’ Sourpuss, the nasty teacher. There’s also the sticky fingered Beanpole, fetishizing contraband with a wicked verve. Don’t forget the walrus-like science teacher, who rearranges the mucus in his head before lessons and is rightly told off by our hero, the effete and marginalized student Tabard, whose sensitivity must stand-in for Vigo in some way. Of course, there’s none stranger than the miniature headmaster, who looks like one of the students except with an 18-inch beard, who keeps his bowler in a glass case for some reason, has a living mirror and awkwardly warns the 8-year-old Tabard of the evils of homosexuality. Only Hugeut, the new teacher and lifelong dreamer, has avoided the fate of the other adults and as such is more child than man, perhaps another shade of Vigo himself.
The movie is Vigo’s most personal and its central conflict is a bow to his infamously anarchist father. The plot such as it is revolves around a number of students planning to ruin the school’s commemorative ceremony by causing chaos and making the adults look like fools. Yes, this is pretty much the same plot as Out Cold (2001) (see, this movie inspired everything) but Vigo is able to draw us into the world of these children without ever bringing us too close. They’re behavior still surprises us, as inevitable as it might seem afterwards. The children’s revolution is as silly as Monty Python’s mutiny on The Crimson Permanent Assurance but it struck to the bone enough that it was banned in France for 15 years after the film was finished and long after Vigo lay in the ground. It’s because of that lightning in the storytelling, that the behavior, which has become clichéd, seems fresh even 80 years later. That’s Vigo’s legacy, a long with the finest synthesis of realism and poeticism, to leave us such a pitiable small amount of film but have it breath with life every time it’s watched.