Banned by state censors until 1946 for its purportedly malicious attack on the French educational system, Zero for Conduct is certainly one of the masterpieces of the French cinema. Drawn from Vigo’s own childhood experiences, the film is situated at a dreadful boarding school in a Paris suburb where petty restrictions imposed on the students cause four schoolboys to organize a revolt. With its blend of poetry and realism, its psychological depth, and its profound sense of anarchy, Zero for Conduct has exerted an influence on many directors, from François Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson to Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax. One of only four films made during Vigo’s brief career (he died at age 29), Zero for Conduct remains one of the great subversive works of the cinema, an eloquent parable of freedom versus authority.
In this loose adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd, Claire Denis takes a captivating look at the rituals of life in the French Foreign Legion, an army with no real purpose anymore. Denis Lavant stars as Galoup, a mercenary who remains emotionally isolated from the men with whom he rigorously trains, exercises and drills. His quiet existence is disrupted by the arrival of a promising recruit who draws the attention of the troop’s commanding officer. Focusing on the beauty of the human form and with a clear nod to Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Denis presents life in the barren North African landscape (familiar territory for the director who was raised on the continent) with haunting intensity.