Film Notes: Zero for Conduct (1933) directed by Jean Vigo

FR / 41 minutes / B&W / Gaumont Dir: Jean Vigo Pro:Jean Vigo Scr: written by Jean Vigo Cine: Boris Kaufman Mus: Maurice Jaubert Cast: Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pluchon, Gérard de Bédarieux, Constantin Goldstein-Kehler, Jean Dasté, Robert Le Flon Release Date: It was first shown on 7 April 1933 and was subsequently banned in France until 15 February 1946 Original title: Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège

Plot Summary: A number of boys return to a French boarding school after vacation. They must follow certain behavioural codes in the school or receive a “zero for conduct” and be punished. One particular group of students plans to revolt against their tyrannical and eccentric schoolmasters during an alumni ceremony. When the event begins, the boys climb the roof of the school and rain tin cans and other garbage on the formal occasion and its participants. (Source:

Although this is not strictly crime fiction, I watched this film for my participation in Rich’s meme Crimes of the Century at his blog Past Offences The year for February 2016, is 1933. After all, it’s a crime the way of understanding education in certain cases.

Zéro de conduite (1933) is one of the four films by French filmmaker Jean Vigo, the previous to his last one, L’Atalante (1934), and follows his two short documentaries À propos de Nice (1930) and La Natation par Jean Taris aka Taris, roi de l’eau (1931). It is also his most well-known work and the film for which he’s recognised for his contribution to the further development of French cinema and the famous “nouvelle vague”. Jean Vigo died in 1934 at the age of 29.

Zéro de conduite is actually a relatively short film, a featurette, based extensively on Vigo’s own experiences at a boarding school. It was shot from December 1932 until January 1933 with a budget of 200,000 francs, and Vigo used mostly non-professional actors and sometimes people that he spotted on the street. The film’s soundtrack was poor in quality due to budgetary constraints, but Vigo’s talent and professional skills, serve to cover any deficiencies and to make the film easily comprehensible.

The premiere shocked many audience members who hissed and booed Vigo. Other audience members, most notably Jacques Prevert, loudly clapped. French film critics were strongly divided about the film. The film’s most vocal critics included a French Catholic journal which called it a scatological work by “an obsessed maniac.” Zéro de conduite was quickly banned in France with some believing that the French Ministry of the Interior considered it a threat capable of “creating disturbances and hindering the maintenance of order.”

Like all of Vigo’s work, Zéro de conduite first began to be rediscovered in about 1945 when a revival screening of his films was organized. Since then its reputation has grown and it has influenced such films as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s if…..Its influence can also be detected in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Nowadays it is available for free download at the Internet Archive.

In essence, the film is a hymn to freedom and to revolution. The performance of the actors, and more specifically of the boys is excellent. The film provides a realistic portrait of the boarding schools of the time, whose practices I would like to believe have already been abolished. And I do hope that we never lose the innocence and free spirit of childhood.

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