A depiction of childhood innocence and anarchy, Zéro de conduite is nearly as bold a display of Jean Vigo's capacity for capturing reality and the poetry of motion as his final work, his magnum opus L'Atalante. A film that romanticizes defiance in childhood without pushing into the realm of pure nostalgia, Zéro de conduite never feels like an adult's concept of youth so much as youth itself, a time when bonds are formed without any deeper desire than to have a friend, when even the smallest bit of mischief could relieve days of authoritarian discipline. The movie's subtitle reads "Little Devils at School," but these hellions have too much good in them to be demons. They only seem so because they've not yet integrated into the social values of the system.
As the young lads of a boarding school prepare to return to their studies after holiday break, we see the kids enjoying their last vestiges of freedom on the train. Two boys, Caussat and Bruel, compare the trinkets the received for Christmas, entertaining each other with gags like the old making-your-thumb-disappear act. When they casually light up two cigars, one senses they won't fall back into rigid discipline in school. Sure enough, upon their arrival, they only recruit more lads to their miniature rebellion: Colin, a pipsqueak who can take the fall because he's too young to punish severely, and Tabard, a new kid clearly struggling with being away from home for the first time. They treat the monitors and teachers with indifference bordering on scorn, and the professors are more than happy to respond in kind.
Based on Vigo's own memories of growing up in a boarding school, the film does not spare much fond remembrance for the institutional (in more than one sense) state of education. Long shots of the communal dorm present the room like a prison, rigidly aligned beds giving each child his own complete lack of privacy. And these boys have even less privacy than the ascetic conditions of the room provide, as one of the monitors sleeps in the room with them, though he of course has the luxury of a curtain. Later, Vigo takes the realistic shots of this dorm and distorts them slightly with different lenses, stretching out the vastness of the room even more and paradoxically enhancing the feeling of isolation it evokes. Further emphasizing the totalitarian nature of the school is a brief interlude where a drawing of one the assistant director, mocked as "Beanpole" by the students (and even other teachers), suddenly comes alive animation, morphing from a sketch of the thin man in a bathing suit through various permutations until he finally turns into Napoleon.
These touches of artistry illustrate the harshness of boarding school life in magical, almost fairy-tale terms. The visually distinctive teachers are like Boggis, Bunce and Bean: one fat, one short, one lean. The only teacher who sympathizes with the boys, Huguet, waddles around like Charlie Chaplin, spinning his cane and walking on his feet for the lads' amusement. That cinematic flourish can be seen later when the film flirts with the rebellious propaganda of Battleship Potemkin, though the uprisings in question are relatively less severe.
Beneath these flighty takes on teachers vs. pupils, there are some grimly real visions of the dark side of this oppressive set-up. The teachers, who are perhaps aware of their own socially unacceptable feelings (late in the film, the fat teacher caresses a boy's hand with predatory fondness), crack down on any friendship they deem too close for comfort: when Bruel and Tabard, whose effeminate nature makes him a mark for the monitors anyway, form an "improperly" close friendship despite its Platonic innocence. It's telling that the children rarely seem to learn anything in this school; rather than impart wisdom, the taskmasters simply try to mold them into members of a society that, as seen from the microcosmic, forming center, has little room for the creativity and freedom the kids exhibit.
Ergo, Vigo's depiction of childhood is, broadly speaking, an unhappy one, one where children's lives are micromanaged by strangers. But that is not to say that Zéro de conduite is for one moment dour: it often feels like a silent film, stretches of images unfolding with only music as the boys get up to hijinks. Every time the sound cut back in, I was jolted, as if I forgot it was a talkie. A climactic pillow fight at once clarifies the small stakes of the action even as it takes the film to new heights of beauty. As down flies out of the pillows, Vigo uses slow motion to linger on the action, capturing the full joy on the boys' faces as feathers fall upwards like snow in reverse. It is a scene so gorgeous and affirming that, in many ways, it has a greater impact than the open defiance that the imps unleash upon a commemoration day at the end. Nevertheless, as they run across rooftops brandishing their rebel flag, one can see past the contemporary social fears of Vigo's poetic realist colleague Jean Renoir all the way to the nagging political outrage that would explode with the New Wave. Indeed, watching Zéro de conduite, one can hardly help but look ahead not only to its clearest homage, The 400 Blows, but the student revolt of May '68.