Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au college)

ZERO FOR CONDUCT (Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au college)      A 
France  (44 mi)  1933  d:  Jean Vigo  

Freedom comes at a high price, and it's very rare. There are maybe ten free men in the world. Jean Vigo was a free man and, as such, he set an example. 
Jean Painlevé, colleague and friend of Jean Vigo

Often viewed as the patron saint of French cinema, Jean Vigo, who died penniless and alone, has been resurrected as a man who boldly stood for lost causes, a man of vision and social conscience who may as well be the radical voice of change often overlooked in the nation’s spotty history, the Vichy government capitulating to the Nazi’s in World War II, bitterly losing their last colonial interests in the 50’s and 60’s to independence, second only to the British in what was once a thriving French colonial empire, where, as so brilliantly expressed in Jean Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME (1939), the French aristocracy continues to maintain a mindset resting on the laurels of its past.  As suggested in his earlier short À PROPOS DE NICE (1930), contrasting the vastly different worlds between the rich and the poor, Vigo saw the wealthy class as entrenched in hedonistic pleasures, squandering their wealth on a life of leisure while the working class performed all the necessary functions of making a city run smoothly.  Vigo saw no way to break through this systematic class barrier without revolutionary change, where in the early 30’s the Great Depression made anti-capitalist ideologies attractive to millions, making the 30’s the golden era of socialism.  But Vigo was not an avowed socialist, but an anarchist, a largely anti-fascist organization remaining active in the Spanish Civil War in the mid 30’s while joining the French Resistance during the German occupation in World War II.  For Vigo, anarchism and acts of civil resistance would lead to a desired social revolution.  And therein lies Vigo’s legacy, as he’s continually seen as a subversive visionary, where his radical political views are matched by the radical influence he’s had on cinema since its infancy, using remarkably original ideas, as expressed in this one-of-a-kind film, viewed as a vaudevillesque mockery of the existing social order, delightfully breaking down barriers at every turn, becoming the generational darling of civil disobedience.  Banned by the government upon release as being anti-French and a potential incite to riot, the film collected mothballs until rediscovered after the war in 1946, becoming a defining centerpiece of the Cahiers du Cinéma group and the subsequent French New Wave, embracing the unbridled spontaneity in the infamous rebellion of four young boys in a stiflingly restrictive boarding school, which Truffaut paid loving homage to in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), while becoming the daring model of open resistance in Lindsay Anderson’s IF….(1968). 

Zéro de Conduite is based on Jean Vigo’s own personal childhood experiences, becoming something of an anarchist anthem on adolescence, filmed at the same Millau junior high boarding school he attended, using a non-professional cast, often people he saw walking down the street, basing the story on real people he knew in his youth, including the character Tabard who is based on Vigo himself.  The director’s poor health declined during the making of the film and he was unable to complete the editing himself.  The story centers on authoritarian rule leading to a school revolt by a group of four boys returning to boarding school after vacation, illustrating the polarizing forces of freedom and authority.  The narrative is loosely knit together with memorable shots and sequences, a constant jostling of images in what feels like a raw and recklessly liberating free-for-all, a surrealist extravaganza on display that boggles the mind with the unrestrained spirit of joy that surrounds every shot.  The playfulness is not to be discounted, as this is, after all, an examination of suppressed childhood, where what should be the carefree days of youth are misspent stuck in a wretchedly suffocating boys school where beans are served every day, the teachers are tyrants and grossly inept, while the overzealous headmaster is a dwarf with a giant beard, like something conjured up by Buñuel, though a new instructor Huguet, Jean Dasté, future star of L'Atalante (1934), dazzles the students with his Charlie Chaplin little Tramp’s walk, not to mention performing a handstand on his classroom desk.  Not altogether rational or lucid, often goofy, the entire film plays out like a chaotic vision in a child’s mind, told with unhesitatingly crude slapstick moving at breakneck speed, where perhaps only Guy Maddin’s legendary short THE HEART OF THE WORLD (2000) The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin - YouTube (6:08) can compare in producing the same electrifying jolt of energy.  Odd, completely unorthodox and strangely beautiful, the film’s reputation lies in exuding a passionate stylistic spontaneity that is nothing less than mind-blowing.  Uniquely original, more mayhem is crammed into these breathless 44 minutes than anything else ever imagined.    

The boys hatch up a plot to take over the school on Alumni day, where invited dignitaries will be present in an overly ordered display of pompous military pageantry, with the idea of creating something an unforgettable spectacle.  The entire film title offers a clue, calling them “little devils at college,” where if truth be told, the schoolchildren themselves never listen, constantly misbehave, are continually plotting mischief of some kind and are hardly innocents (hard not to think of the Harry Potter trio), but the film makes it clear these acts of defiance are a natural response to abusive power.  Way ahead of its time, a satiric film so compressed that every single shot matters, each one remarkably unique, Vigo blends experimental techniques into the narrative, especially evident in a dream-like pillow fight that erupts after ripping their beds to shreds, throwing white feathers everywhere as if snow had suddenly fallen inside the otherwise dreary, prison-like dormitory walls, like those little glass figurines that you shake and turn upside down to produce the same effect, poetically changing speeds to slow motion in a dizzying display of pent-up emotions, a striking parady of the military state and a beautiful expression of the anarchist spirit of youth, the result of long festering rebellious impulses that have been simmering under the surface throughout.  But there’s more, as this fearsome foursome climbs to the roof on the day of the Alumni day ceremony, tilting the camera to show the students triumphantly reaching the top, where they immediately begin pelting all the guests with garbage and debris, insurrectionists raising hell and disrupting the proceedings, turning the tables on who’s in charge, creating utter chaos and pandemonium.  Vigo’s rooftop shots show the gallivanting kids taking charge of their own separate universe, always framed with the endless sky as a backdrop, leap-frogging across the rooftops to their escape, where freedom is expressed through seemingly unlimited horizons.  The film is a timeless ode to freedom and the spirit of youth, where throwing off the shackles of authority is the first step in accepting what amounts to the reigns of maturity and your own adulthood, redefining the world at large, filled with a revolutionary vision of endless possibilities, something of a punk rock anthem years ahead of its time, where in the entire history of cinema there is nothing else like it.       

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