Best Pictures of 1933 (#1) – Zéro de Conduite

The joy that went into making this homage to childhood and indictment of the French boarding school system is enough to make it the best picture of 1933.  Sure, it is technically unpolished, eschews a traditional narrative structure and runs only about 40 minutes, but in that brief time with rough tools Jean Vigo composed a truly great film.  We watch life unfold for the students at a typical French school for boys.  Four of the school’s students, Caussat, Colin, Bruel, and Tabard, constant troublemakers, plot a revolution to coincide with annual Commemoration Day ceremony.  We don’t see anything especially egregious or unjust occur against the children that would justify such a drastic reaction, but that is exactly Vigo’s point: the institution, the entire system is inherently repressive, but we’re not sensitive to it because we have been climatized to the inevitable injustices that the rigors of standardized behavior impose on us.  That’s just a fancy way of saying we don’t fully relate to the students because our schools have done their jobs and sucked the fun out of (most) of us.

We watch the secret life of these young boys with relish, perhaps eager to reconnect with our own childhoods.  This is clearly what Vigo intended.  We feel Vigo’s strong identification with the freedom of childhood and his sorrow at its inevitable extinction.  Most of the adults in the picture are grotesque caricatures of adulthood: the Headmaster is extremely short with a bushy beard, the House Master is totally silent, never speaking through the entire movie, and the biology teacher is enormously fat.  Their abnormalities suggest deeper neuroses.  The Headmaster is pompous (would it be a cliché to suggest he suffers from a Napoleon Complex?).  The House Master lurks around the school like a spy, but he uses his access to the school’s rooms to steal from the students.  And there are hints that the obese biology teacher may have at least tried to initiate a sexual relationship with Tabard.  Clearly the adulthood for which the school claims to prepare the children doesn’t have much relationship with the values of its own administrators.

Vigo understands this tension and exploits it fully.  His use of surreal elements (the disappearing ball, the self-correcting drawing, the dummies in the audience) reinforces the idea that, just as a movie only presents an approximation of a situation or place, a school also only exists as an approximation of real life for its students.  The school in this movie is isolated and aloof from the world, so instead of preparing its boys for life outside their walls, all they are doing is molding them with arbitrary and claustrophobic rules suited for an institution (like a prison), not a life supposedly of freedom and liberty.  It’s no wonder this movie made the French government nervous and banned it upon its release.

We can assess just how accomplished this movie is by comparing it to Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 If…, a remake of Zéro de Conduite.  (Some say it is only inspired by Vigo’s picture, but the story and characters are essentially the same so it’s a remake.)  Many people admire Anderson’s satire of British boarding schools, but I’m not one of them.  All of the joy and spontaneity of Vigo’s picture is sapped out of If… with its expanded story, glossier production values, and misguided decision to make the students older teenagers rather than adolescent boys.  Where Vigo’s use of surrealistic fantasy suggested an unpretentious homage to the secret life of children, Anderson fumbles with similar material, simply confusing his themes and the audience.  In 1968 Anderson showed that, with a more fully fleshed out script, a better budget and a longer run time, he couldn’t recreate the visceral joy we get when watching the original unpolished 1933 production.  Zéro de Conduite is not only the best film of 1933, but one of the best films ever.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1933 (#1) – Zéro de Conduite

  1. Jason:

    Bravo, bravo bravo!!!!

    This is precisely the film that I have also named as the best of 1933. This may well be the most anarchic film ever made, and it’s unquestionably one of teh glories of the French cinema, and one of Vigo’s two masterworks with L’ATALANTE (which contends as the best film of 1934). Your astute comparison to Lindsay Anderson’s IF is dead-on, as is your vital discussion of the celebrated surrealistic elements in the film. It’s pure visual poetry, and a film that is (as you again rightly claim) rates as one of the cinema’s great masterpieces.

    How do I stand myself on 1933?

    Well, here we go.

    My Top Film of 1933: ZERO DE CONDUITE (Vigo; France)

    Runners-Up: (in no particular order) DUCK SOUP (Marx Brothers)
    LITTLE TOYS (Sun Yu; China)
    QUEEN CHRISTINA (Mamoulian)
    42nd STREET (Bacon)
    GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (LeRoy)
    BITTER TEA OF GEN. YEN (Capra)
    KING KONG (Cooper/Schoedsack)
    THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (Korda; UK)
    FRA DIAVOLO (Laurel and Hardy)
    OUTSKIRTS (Barnet; Russia)
    ZOO IN BUDAPEST (Lee)
    THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Roberts)
    THE INVISIBLE MAN (Whale)

    • Thanks Sam, I’m pleased to hear you agree with me here. I love how you refer to this movie as anarchic because it is without fumbling over into absurdity (the way Anderson did in “If…”). Everything that happens is completely plausible.

      Your own list is great. I liked “General Yen,” but didn’t love it. The only one I completely disagree with is “King Kong.” That is a movie that just leaves me cold. I hate that there are no consequences for the guy who brings Kong to New York or any interrogation about the question of what man’s proper relationship should be with nature. There are no relatable characters for me with the possible exception of Fay Wray and Kong himself, but he isn’t developed beyond being a movie monster.

      As for the other that don’t appear on my list, I just haven’t seen them yet! Some of them I have been looking for a while, especially Little Toys, Zoo in Budapest, and The Story of Temple Drake. If you have any tips on if it’s possible to get these movies I would appreciate you advice!

  2. Jason, I will definitely dig these three out from my collection over the next few days, (and will do what needs to be done!) and I will talk to you by e mail. As always, it’s my pleasure.

  3. I will indeed be e mailing you Jason!

  4. Must admit I haven’t seen this one, and again there are a lot of your 1933 choices I haven’t seen, Jason – I’ve left separate comments on those I do know. I’m with Sam on ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ and ‘King Kong’ – really like them both, especially the Capra. 1933 was also a strong year for William Wellman – he made several good movies in the year including Depression masterpieces ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ and ‘Heroes For Sale’, which must both be among my favourites for the year.

    • Boy, I wish I understood the whole “King Kong” thing. I just really dislike that movie. But as is so often the case, I am in the distinct minority here.

      I have not seen the Wellmans you mention. I’ll add them to my list to see from 1933.

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