There are some truly excellent moments in Zero for Conduct, usually when director Vigo slows down the film (literally) and focuses attention on how the characters are experiencing said moments. The biggest one—though maybe not best—comes during the prelude to insurrection, when the students in a boys’ school are marching towards… well, it turns out their not marching towards anything right then but it’s a really filmic moment with pillow feathers going through the air. It’s a great moment.
But it doesn’t really add up to anything, not for the story (as it is) or the film itself. Zero for Conduct only runs forty-five minutes, which seems to be just right—going into the finale, it seems unlikely Vigo could’ve stretched anything else given the considerable constraints. For example, the big insurrection turns out to just be limited to the four main boys, while the others sleep it off, and the reaction from the school is very muted. Vigo hasn’t been going for minimalism until now, so scaling it down so much seems like it’s got to be a money thing.
Or maybe the boys—two are indistinguishable, one is short, one is effeminate (which leads to a creepy implied subplot with one of the teachers and it’s too bad things don’t actually get violent at the end)—are supposed to be good enough as archetypes. But Zero for Conduct doesn’t age particularly well. It’s about a bunch of asshole dudes; the adults are the school are corrupt or incompetent, mean or just plain sexual predators—save the earnest headmaster (Delphin), who gets played for jokes because he’s a little person.
And most of the kids are assholes too. Sure, they’re in earnest revolt but everyone’s revolting.
If the finale worked out to be anything more than a muted slapstick romp—and not a bad one, Vigo’s far better at the slapstick action than having new school staff member Jean Dasté do Chaplin impressions during recess–Conduct might’ve pulled through but it abandons the kids.
Regardless of their acting being wanting—Vigo covers the acting deficiencies by limiting Conduct’s dialogue and lots of dubbed-in background audio—it’s still ostensibly their story and they get the boot. But, I guess, whatever… fraternité. Emphasis on the frat.
Oh, and I do want to mention the technical successes again. When Vigo has them—save one time he does a photographic cheat on a magic trick—they’re outstanding. They just don’t add up; mostly because Vigo’s front heavy with them.