French sociologist Roger Caillois proposed that every form of human recreation could be placed somewhere on a continuum between two terms: ludus and paidia. The first of these represents games defined almost wholly by their rule systems. Crossword puzzles and chess might lie near the ludic extreme. Paidia, by contrast, is sheer tumult, a realm of spontaneous roles and invention and a ceaseless overturning of bodies. If one were to assign an emblematic sound to paidia, it could only be that which opens Zéro de conduite (1933): the screams of kids at recess, a mass of voices expressing nothing beyond the creative energies of play in and for itself.
The spirit of paidia also invests Vigo’s approach to film form, here as everywhere in his small, miraculous oeuvre, whether it’s the whirling momentum of transformative association in the documentary essay À propos de Nice (1930), the delighted focus on a body unbound in his educational short Taris (1931), or the kaleidoscopic shifts in tone in his final film, and only other narrative work, L’Atalante (1934). That last film manages to remain open to complicated crosscurrents of desire while still hitting its plot points. But Zéro de conduite is something else, a work in which the play impulse is so strong that everything solid tumbles in its wake. Indeed, on first viewing, it’s hard to tell if it has a plot at all. The schoolboy conspiracy to disrupt the commemoration day ceremony provides one loose story hinge, and the headmaster’s prurient suspicions about the bond developing between two of the students offers another, but it’s only in retrospect that these become dominant. Moment to moment, the film seems perpetually wayward, and the effect is reinforced by its rather casual regard for the accepted norms of cinematic craftsmanship. Character position and light frequently fail to match between shots, dialogue is often garbled, and story threads that seem set up for eventual payoff are snipped before any ever arrives.
Some of this disarray may be attributable to the circumstances of the film’s making. Vigo owed his entry into narrative cinema to Jacques-Louis Nounez, a businessman and movie lover with no prior experience in production, who believed he’d spotted an unoccupied niche in the European market for “medium-length” films. Vigo’s initial treatment for Zéro de conduite would have far exceeded the forty-minute length specified in his contract, so he scaled it back considerably. Even so, he had to cut a thousand feet from his first edit (footage that has apparently not survived). On top of this, Vigo faced a straitened shooting schedule—eight days in the studio plus another week or so on location—and a spartan budget, which dictated that most shots be granted no more than a single take. In light of these conditions, it isn’t surprising that many critics regarded the film as a shambles after its initial screenings—and a rather threatening and offensive shambles to boot; it was quickly banned by the French censors and remained largely unseen in that country until 1948.
But with a sensibility as rare and peculiar as Vigo’s, it’s especially difficult to separate flaw from strategy. He was an artist who nurtured a close collaborative relationship with chance. Consider, for example, the prized place he gives in each of his narrative films to notoriously intractable performers: cats and Michel Simon in L’Atalante, children here. An isolated child can be wheedled, goaded, or tricked into a performance—film lore is full of anecdotes of each approach. But en masse, children assume their own momentum, and far from seeking to contain this, Vigo made it the driving force of his film. In a way, the movie might be said to exist to provide a loose, unbinding frame for the cluttered and uncontrolled action of the dormitory riot. All of its branchings lead back and forth from that utopian space, and so must any discussion of it.
Early in the film, Vigo lays the groundwork for a style that can incorporate seemingly anything. The train compartment in which the story begins is the first of the great possibility spaces that act as nodal points throughout the film, restricted areas that unfold into expansive wonder cabinets. And it’s play that effects the switch. Sharing the car with only the remote form of a sleeping man, the boy Caussat sits oppressed by the encroaching blackness. But the entry of his friend Bruel turns the mood on a dime and launches a show-and-tell exchange of mock metamorphoses—a handful of feathers strategically deployed conjures a Caussat chicken, two balloons at chest height a Bruel woman. For their last trick, the kids bring out a pair of cheap cigars, and their clouds of smoke blend with the plume of steam trailing beyond the window, blurring the box space of the compartment. Vigo holds on this pliable, dreamlike image for just an instant before breaking the mood with the slight, funny shock of the film’s first spoken words—“He’s dead!”—magically mirrored in the obliging slump of the sleeper (we’ll soon see him resurrected, as the new teacher Huguet). In these opening minutes, we’re introduced to a sensibility for which all borders are porous: inside and outside, male and female, human and animal, body and world, animate and inanimate, perhaps even life and death. This is paidia in its purest form.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the school authorities are so immersed in their rule sets that they’ve come to take them for eternal verities. They are wholly creatures of limit, frozen in a set of grotesque postures. Where paidia blends, ludus sets apart, a trait seen nowhere more clearly than in the squat science teacher, M. Viot, who manages to hold adjacent in his person both the stickiest, greasiest aspects of wet and the chalkiest, dustiest of dry. He is an amalgam of unwholesome textures, and Vigo observes his preparatory routine (sniffing fingers, removing tie, preparing nostrils, discharging phlegm) with a kind of fascinated revulsion from which affection isn’t wholly absent. It’s the kind of wide-eyed gaze a child might turn on a troll, or the wattles of an aged aunt, anything perceived as compelling and monstrous. Revulsion becomes paramount on Viot’s approach to the boy Tabard—so strongly has his oily tactility been established that his unexpected caress is itself a violation, and it’s hard not to flinch in tandem. But as a figure, Viot is grotesque finally not because of the condition of his body but due to his alienation from it. Reinvested with immediacy and fluidity, he might be a cousin of the magnificent paidiac monster Père Jules in L’Atalante.
Something more than a shadow of affection invests the film’s greatest comic creation, the housemaster known as Beanpole (Bec-de-Gaz). A man wholly defined by a limited set of verbs—to sneak, to spy, to pry, and, in the presence of the principal, to cringe—he becomes single-pointed in their observance, whether stalking in tiny tiptoes, as if each inch of ground might conceal either trap or treasure, or darting in stutter steps like a great oblong bird on the approach of his master. It’s almost endearing to witness the glee with which he seizes on uncovered contraband, popping candy in his mouth, secreting notes and photos in some crevice of his coat . . . It takes so little to make him happy. Still, our last glimpse of him, driven to apparent ecstasy by the rain of old books and smelly boots at the conclusion, will forever remain one of the film’s hanging mysteries. Can this unexpected reaction be attributed to the strange and limited range of an inexperienced performer (the superintendent of Vigo’s apartment building)? Was Beanpole a secret sympathizer with the rebellion? Both explanations seem unlikely, but it’s impossible to say. I prefer to think he’s expressing anticipatory delight at the prospect of later poking through these piles of junk, any piece of which may contain secrets, perhaps gum.
As for the single intermediate figure in the film—Huguet, who alone carries the spirit of paidia into adulthood—he’s basically Chaplin, and not just because an idle moment on the playground leads him to stage an impromptu reworking of a gag from Easy Street. That moment may in fact be more revelation than imitation, since he elsewhere displays so many of the Little Tramp’s most noticeable traits: being eager but easily distracted, capable of magical transformations through concentrated attention but likewise immediately given over to any strong impulse, such as the surge of libido that seizes him on spotting a pretty girl in the street. He’s essentially no less fantastic than the authority figures, a “dream adult” to set beside the nightmares.
L’Atalante has a more complicated take on the challenges of carrying the play spirit into adulthood, but that film also adopts an older point of view. Zéro de conduite is told from within childhood. Its demons are childish, its guardian angel childlike, and its children are, basically, children. Vigo idealizes only in his omissions—the internecine cruelty of children, for example, is barely glimpsed: by implication in Tabard’s isolated stance on the playground and more directly in the quick flashes of Colin’s devastation during the cafeteria food fight, which rallies around a chanted attack on his mother, “Down with Ma Beans!” Even so, Vigo is never sentimental, since sentimentality implies distance, a coy nostalgia for something lost, and Zéro de conduite is nothing if not directly invested in childhood’s explosive energies. It follows a meandering course akin to a kid’s narration, lingering at unexpected points while skipping other developments entirely, and its story line is dotted with non sequiturs, such as the mysterious and beautiful tableau of Caussat’s Sunday: sitting blindfolded, his guardian shielded by a newspaper, while a little girl in a frilly dress and white panties silently hangs a globe of goldfish on a wire. Each detail so vivid, so strange.
That magic can peek forth even within the confines of such jellied domesticity is indicative of a central current in Vigo’s films. “Underneath the sidewalks, the beach” ran a famous Situationist slogan. Zéro de conduite anticipates those later revolutionaries with the implicit proposition “Beneath the office, the playground.” It’s no accident that this last site is the staging ground for the film’s revolution. In his first film, Vigo had scraped away the surface of the gambling resort Nice to reveal the emblematic societal gaming table beneath, but that game was roulette, where the house always wins in the long run. Fenced in and patrolled by authority, the playground of Zéro de conduite is certainly compromised at the outset, but it remains a site of possibility and an outlet for the roiling energies Vigo holds dear. Given this, the entry of ranked representatives of church and state during the commemoration day ceremony stands as nothing less than an invasion, so it’s wholly appropriate that the film concludes with the space’s reclamation.
If that ending still seems a little anticlimactic, despite the winning spectacle of hirsute firemen heaving themselves ineffectually atop gym equipment, it’s because we’ve already seen the fruits of achieved revolution at the climax of the preceding dorm riot, when the film holds its breath to preserve a glowing moment in suspension: the backward vault of a naked body, a procession of children, and all around the fall of feather snow, which erases the hard gray lines of the room and opens it out into infinite space. It’s an image at once sacred and profane, political and omnisexual, and it stands as a basic affirmation of the power of recreation to re-create.
It all comes back to bodies. André Bazin never sounded so Catholic as when he noted Vigo’s “almost obscene appetite for the flesh,” but he wasn’t wrong. Rude freedom is the motive power of these films, and it finds expression in the untrammeled energy of bodies in motion. Vigo’s works answer the middlebrow tendency to equate maturity with resignation and loss by flaunting immaturity like a pirate flag. They’re fascinated with butts and dicks and breasts, so that’s where they look, and any shame is wholly the property of the offended spectator. Even eighty-some years after their making, they remain the freshest, and the youngest, films you can see.
I’ve sometimes wondered where Vigo would fall in Bazin’s famous dichotomy between “those directors who place their faith in the image and those who place their faith in reality.” But really, the only answer can be elsewhere, or nowhere, since the presuppositions of that split are foreign to him. He was an artist too much in love with the materials of the world to ever give them so fixed a name as reality.