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.