In this article, James Agee writes a review in high praise for Jean Vigo’s daring experimentation and messages of “Zéro de Conduite.” He begins by warning the reader to not watch Vigo’s film if he or she is affronted by experimentation in film and other mediums. He then mentions that the role of Vigo as artist is to simply open the spectator’s eyes a little bit wider. After a quick summary of the plot, Agee decides that full enjoyment of the film depends on the subjective perception of each viewer, and admits that he too shares many of Vigo’s “obsessions for liberty and against authority.” He then relates the ways in which Vigo’s film is a revolutionary expression, namely the lack of any sort of constructed “diagnosis and prescription,” which can be taken to mean linear plot line, as well as the “liberating force” of its whimsical, mischievous, childish humor and trickery. Agee eventually describes what he sees as Vigo’s “trick,” that being the ability to blur the distinctions between objective and subjective, reality and the fantastic, with technical style and innovation. He decides that all the “levels of reality” presented are equal in value, but interconnected, an aesthetic point of poetic perception. He makes a point of stating that he does not take Vigo’s tactics to be unconventional, but rather simply expanding the audience’s concept of film with different strategies. He reinforces the role of the audience as sympathetic to the rebellious boys, who are portrayed sentimentally as creative, wild, beautiful children, while the teachers are portrayed as grotesque caricatures of authority. The article ends as Agee mentions a few of his favorite scenes from the film, particularly the sacrilegious “slurred” motion parade of the boys out of the dormitories, which he likens to the newsreel shots of the liberation of Paris.
Although Agee may have been a biased reviewer, as he shared many of the same political instincts as Jean Vigo, his analysis of the film is nevertheless an excellent description of its subversive, anti-authoritarian tendencies. By pointing out the lack of a cohesively constructed plotline, with a problem and solution, Agee references Vigo’s truest subversive and anti-authoritarian act as not solely the content of the film, which is obviously anti-authority, but structure of the film itself. By producing a film that makes the audience feel uncomfortable about the differences between fantasy, the dreams of children, and the reality of the daily life of the school, Vigo takes an anarchist step towards questioning the basic nature of how we perceive our reality outside of the theater. Additionally, Agee deliberately mentions some of the film’s subversive content, particularly the whimsy of the students, as avowedly anti-establishment, since it is their childish humor and fancy that in fact does disrupt the alumni gathering at the end of the film, leaving the children victorious. Another specific example would be the boys’ parade out of their dormitories, a very anti-Catholic/anti-organized religion parody that subverted social and cultural norms, not just political ones. In general, Vigo's liberating portrayal of childhood instincts directly confronts the rigid, dummy establishment of teachers and adulthood.
Citation: Agee, James. "Films." The Nation. 5 Jul. 1947. 23-25.
unfortunately, I do not have the URL for where I accessed the article, but I do have a pdf copy if you would like me to send it.