Jean Vigo’s place in cinema history is grounded in less than 170 minutes of screen time: Á propos de Nice (1930), Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), films which at the time found no favour with reviewers or distributors. Zéro de conduite was given no chance by the censorship authorities who presumably sensed a revolutionary sensibility at work; it remained banned until after World War II.
Vigo’s anarchist credentials are most often established by reference to his father Eugene’s activities under the name of Miguel Almereyda (an anagram for “this is shit”) and his death, almost certainly murdered in prison in 1917 when Jean was twelve, although the facts of the case, as outlined in P. E. Salles Gomes’ critical biography of Jean Vigo, are shrouded in considerable doubt (1).
For many years after his early death in 1934 (2), Vigo’s place as “the natural child of Surrealism and anarchy” was limited by the availability of his films, especially L’Atalante, in the form he intended. Their radical expression “became the exhalation of an unconventional life and upbringing” (3). It is the very casualness of his connections with surrealism and socialism, more intuitive than programmatic, that has continued to give his work life.
A secret of Vigo’s magic in Zéro de conduite may lie in his very lack of filmmaking experience. Creative freedom challenged by technical problems in recording dialogue encouraged a disregard for the conventions of assembling a filmic narrative which coalesced in a form radically driven by anarchist ideas drawing on Vigo’s own experience of eight years in boarding school (4). The discarding of linear character development, the blending of realistic detail and a surrealistic-poetic sensibility is evocative of ideas that schooling is little more than incarceration disguised as education. The elimination of technical shortcomings and Vigo’s apparent submission to the containment of a conventional structure and theme in his only feature, L’Atalante, yielded a powerful refiguring, in Dudley Andrew’s words, of his “imagistic play and spontaneous flights” (5).
Zéro de conduite does not comment on anything; rather it directly expresses a revolutionary sensibility. It unfolds with the surrealist poetry invoked by the child-like narration. Vigo sees through the eyes of his boys. Zéro de conduite substitutes dream for the analysis of Á propos de Nice with just enough facts of social life to ground its imaginary adventures. Its triumph is the surrealist access to the imaginary in the most commonplace setting, as seen in the opening sequence.
We are plunged into the alternative world of childhood. In the train Causset and Bruel enliven the space with bizarre boys’ games transforming childish objects and becoming enveloped in smoke both inside (from the large cigars they produce) and outside (from the engine), so that the space initially inhabited by the schoolboys assumes a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere heightened by Maurice Jaubert’s path-breaking music score. The adult figure sleeping slumped in the corner (who is subsequently revealed to be Huguet, the new teacher) Causset pronounces to be dead. The magical transformation of mundane space is a perfect introduction, opening out into Vigo’s interplay of anarchist pedagogy with surrealist poetry. In this way he transforms, through an anthology of scenes, the grimly Spartan boarding school. Consistent with an anarchist dialectic, Vigo’s unswerving anti-authoritarianism consciously opposes the repressive school to the more openly poised realm outside, a dialectic also to be seen in the contrast between classroom solemnity and playground spontaneity, a means of promoting social collective desire through the alternative world of the young.
An avant-garde use of the medium combined with aggressive social critique comes together in an unconventional sensual politics explored in Vigo’s films. In a lecture Vigo proclaimed Á propos de Nice to be a continuation of the film he most admired: Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) (6). But what was so influential about the following films is that they owed nothing to other films. Their profound originality “was Vigo’s great contribution to, and legacy from, anything that might be called a Surrealist revolution” (7).
Can Zéro de conduite be seen as a surrealist film with realist touches and L’Atalante, a realist film with surrealist touches? The films’ seamlessness defies such categorisation. Jonathan Rosenbaum points out that the world of the school “is simply no ordinary place where strange things occasionally happen but a poetic universe we all instinctively know” (8).
In considering Vigo’s poetry, John M. Smith, in his monograph, draws on an essay in which Gilberto Pérez Guillermo attempts to define, or at least restrict, the use of “poetry” when speaking of film (9). Following Pérez Guillermo, Smith concludes that “the more bound a filmmaker is by the material world, by the special way things look and sound and feel, the more likely he is to be a poet” (10). Plot must not dictate meaning if one is to have film poetry. Vigo builds the degree of imaginative vision, which is always an interpretation of reality and never a denial of it.
Although the teachers are close to caricatures each has a solid presence. There are distortions, most obviously the principal’s diminutiveness, which make the staff inferior to the boys. Their control is less actual than symbolic of their inflexibility, an inability to develop. The boys, with their flexibility and spontaneity, are set against the unchanging environment of the school, giving it life. They see to it that the control exercised upon them is minimal. Vigo thus breathes poetry into the institutional reality reaching a climax in the dormitory (the revolt in slow-motion) and the playground decked out for the fete, the former instinctual and full of life in its ceremony, the latter absurdly brittle and empty.
Huguet stands apart from the other staff members such as the sneaky assistant principal (nicknamed Gas-Snout) and Parrain (Dry-Fart) who is “crucified” as he sleeps in his bed. The new master is described by Richard Porton as appearing and assuming “the role of honorary child and antic pied piper”, specifically recalling Chaplin in Easy Street (1917) (11). Andrew notes that “the polymorphous sexuality of the children stands out against the vaguely submerged pederasty of their teachers, who continually cringe and look askance, all the time fearing ‘that with these children anything can happen!’”(12). Suggestion of submerged pederasty is close to the surface in the chemistry master’s inappropriate contact with Tabard.
Porton concludes that “the schoolboy’s final gesture of revolutionary defiance transforms what some might have viewed as a random series of vignettes into a specifically anarchist critique” (13). The final revolt probably decided the censors against the film.
It should be added, as Alan Williams points out in his history of French cinema, Republic of Images, that Vigo “received crucial aid from established and aspiring members of the film community [in France] who had quite diverse relations to Left politics” (14). Given his lack of filmmaking experience, Vigo’s creative collaboration in widely varying conditions on all four of his films, with Russian émigré cinematographer and brother of Dziga Vertov, Boris Kaufman, was especially important for Á propos de Nice and Zéro de conduite (15).
- See the first chapter of P. E. Salles Gomes’ Jean Vigo, Cinema Two, Secker and Warburg, London, 1971.
- Vigo suffered from weakened lungs which developed into tuberculosis. For a good deal of the shooting of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante he was on the set with a temperature ranging from 102 to 104 degrees. Blood poisoning was the actual cause of his death.
- Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1995, p. 65.
- Gomes sees the new student Tabard as “representing Vigo”, p. 98.
- Andrew, p. 70.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995, p. 275. Vigo also had special admiration for the realist films of Erich von Stroheim.
- Andrew, p. 68.
- Rosenbaum, p. 275.
- Pérez Guillermo identifies a tradition of poetry – Vigo, Renoir, Becker and Truffaut – in French cinema. Based on T. S. Eliot’s claim that “the poet is the least abstract of men [sic] because he is the most bound by his own language”, Pérez Guillermo rejects the frequent claim that “poetry” is to be found in abstract or nearly abstract films. Plot helps “to establish a concrete human situation […] but plot mustn’t dictate meaning if one is to have film poetry”. Gilberto Pérez Guillermo, “Jacques Becker: Two Films”, Sight and Sound vol. 38, no. 3, Summer 1969, p. 146.
- John M. Smith, Jean Vigo, Movie Paperbacks, November Books, London, 1972, p. 70.
- Richard Porton, Film and the Anarchist Imagination, Verso, London and New York, 1999, p. 200. Chaplin was one of the few icons of pop culture acclaimed by anarchist critics, surrealists and educators alike.
- Andrew, p. 69.
- Porton, p. 202. Porton dismisses claims for Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) as a British reinterpretation of Zéro de conduite: “While the rhetoric of Anderson’s film is at times more strident than Vigo’s, If… is a film in which specifically militant sentiments are ultimately defused by essentially conservative trepidations” (p. 207).
- Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1992, p. 215.
- In the magazine Cine-Club in 1949 Kaufman wrote nostalgically of his collaboration with Vigo which he referred to in terms of the loss of “a cinematographic paradise”. Between 1945-70 Kaufman was cinematographer on at least 20 films in America including Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954; for which he won an Oscar).
Zéro de conduite/Zero for Conduct (1933 France 44 mins)
Prod Co: Argui-Film Prod: Henri Storck Dir, Scr, Ed: Jean Vigo Phot: Boris Kaufman
Mus: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: Jean Dasté, Robert le Flon, Du Verron, Delphin, Blanchar, Larive, Louis Lefebvre, Gérard de Bédarieux, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein