Pras On World Films: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (“Zazie At The Metro” / French)

“All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream…”

Louis Malle’s 1960 French comedy Zazie dans le métro is a children’s film dressed up in its grandparents’ clothes. This madcap, surreal look at one little girl’s day trip to Paris is silly fun, though alternately old fashioned and progressive, adopting well-worn styles of cinematic humor to toy with modern sensibilities. Slapstick and wordplay lend a quirky bend to Zazie’s world. Silent films are an influence, as are Looney Tunes, and like the best fairy tales, the wolf here has some particularly nasty teeth.

Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, which subverted language in satiric ways and was considered unadaptable for film, Malle’s film translates the wordplay into a kind of visual anarchy while still fiddling with language. (The English subtitles do a good job of communicating the quirks, with translations like “Damgoddit” and “Hormosessual.”)

At the center of the chaos is Zazie played by child actor Catherine Demongeot, a sort of Pippi Longstocking by way of Chaplin’s The Kid. She is a sardonic and mischievous 10-year-old who gets left with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) while her mother goes off on a romantic weekend with her latest squeeze. Uncle has plans to show her the sights, but Zazie is only interested in going underground to ride the metro — an impossibility as the metro workers are on strike. Zazie is a prankster visiting with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, Coup de Torchon) while her mother (Odette Piquet) has a quick fling with her new lover.

A tomboy with an uneven haircut and a foul mouth, Zazie does little to hide her casual contempt for the adult world surrounding her, and she doesn’t hesitate to falsely accuse adults of unspeakable acts or berate them for what she perceives as stupidity. 

Zazie makes for the reliably disdainful center of a film that is unreservedly manic and has Malle seemingly throwing stuff up on screen just to see if it’ll work. Much of the time it does, but Zazie’s pace is so frenetic, the comedy almost doesn’t register as such much of the time. It seems like it should be a laugh riot, but its breakneck speed and underlying cynical tone make for a film that’s more admirably nuts than outright funny.

As traffic piles up due to the strike, so do the absurdities. Zazie discovers her uncle is a dancer in a drag show, and she gets chased all over town by him and a disguise-wearing policeman (Vittorio Caprioli). Her misadventures take her all across the city, up the Eiffel Tower and into a flea market where she lusts after a pair of blue jeans. The whole movie is just a collection of random bits of fun, really.

The gregarious Gabriel is a bit of a loose cannon himself. He tells his niece that he’s a night watchman, but he’s really sneaking off to a nightclub where he dances in drag. He is not a “homosessual,” as the word is regularly mispronounced; on the contrary, he’s a

A Citroen Cityrama Bus

 

ladies man with a particularly gorgeous wife (a particularly gorgeous Carla Marlier). The wife also catches the lecherous eye of Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli, Il generale della Rovere, Dassin’s The Law), a rapscallion who followed Zazie home after his buying her “blew-jeans” failed to yield the desired results. A surprising joke later in the picture reveals he has been increasing the age of his prey throughout the day, though the older Madame Mwack (Yvonne Clech) jumps his age threshold. His motivation is just one of the many darker, adult jokes peppered in Zazie dans le métro, while the Madame Mwack character is one of the only times Malle’s movie proves to be mean-spirited. Unless the joke is that she’s not the “old hag” they keep calling her–which she’s not–and it’s a critique on the shallow prejudices of the other characters.

Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro is an exuberant blast of irreverence. Despite its proximity to the French New Wave, it bears almost no resemblance to the movement’s initial films, even if it consciously flouts classical cinematic convention in some related ways. Rather, Zazie most looks like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, with a nonstop barrage of gags, camera tricks and odd editing that turn 1960s Paris into a colorful and chaotic fantasy world.

In fact, there could be a lot of humor in Zazie dans le métro that has been lost across time and culture. The title refers to Zazie’s dream of riding the Parisian subways, something she does not get to do in the movie because the train staff is on strike. There is much debate over this method of employment protest, and Malle and his co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (working from a book by Raymond Queneau) are clearly making a comment on current social issues. Excepting the most obvious of meanings, most of this kind of stuff went right over my head.

Thankfully, most of Zazie’s adventures don’t require any added insight. Unable to ride the rails, Zazie must create other mischief. She sneaks out of the house for some adventure. That’s when she meets Trouscaillon. Running away from him is one of the many inspired chase sequences in the film. She leads him through back alleys and shopping districts for a series of gags, which grow increasingly implausible, the brunette Jerry getting away from the aging Tom. Later, Gabriel is hijacked by a tour bus, and Zazie and Mwack must pursue him through clogged traffic. Malle and his editor, Kenout Peltier, favor quick cuts, snipping out middle bits, moving their characters willy nilly through the scenes. They also play with film speed and crank the audio, and something completely nonsensical could be lurking around any corner. The guy in the polar bear suit eventually has his place, but at first, he’s just a random bit of fun.

The film is a pure blast of chaos and charm, with a winning young star and a cast of gung-ho supporting players who really get into the spirit of the thing. It is slapstick verité, embracing the oft undervalued tendency for the nouvelle vague not to take itself too seriously. (Indeed, listen for the swipe Malle takes at his compatriots in the new wave in one off-hand joke.) It’s no surprise that Zazie is considered a cult movie, as it is a peculiar concoction, playing acquired sensibilities in the broadest manner. If you can keep pace with its precocious star, then there is much joy to be had; if you can’t, then maybe you weren’t much fun to begin with.

Zazie dans le métro however, is an odd duck amongst Louis Malle’s filmography–but then, it would be an odd duck in just about any filmography. This screwy kinda-sorta kid’s picture takes audiences on a wild romp through Paris, led by a merry trickster named Zazie. The girl goes looking for fun, poking at the bloated self-importance of adult mores in the process, and Malle delivers strings of gags and crazy chases, bringing the whole of French society into his cinematic pie fight. (Or, make that a sauer kraut and schnitzel fight.) It’s breezy fun, though like an overly precocious child, could wear out its welcome for some viewers.

ZAZIE DANS LE METRO:  An Essay

By rights, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro ought to rank quite highly among the great unfilmable novels of the 20th century. Rife with a peculiar francophonic mix of slang, wordplay, and toilet humor, and compressed into an all-in-a-day temporality, the sometime surrealist and Oulipo-founder’s hugely popular 1959 children’s book owes more than a little to James Joyce’s Ulysses and, though a fraction of the length, may be just as dense. All the more impressive, then – if not foolhardy – that Louis Malle chose to adapt the novel just a year after its publication. Riding high on the success of 1958’s The Lovers – only his second feature, an international sensation, and the film that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to declare that he knew pornography when he saw it – Malle must have felt emboldened to try something completely different. This would not be the last time – he famously made a career of tonal and stylistic 180s – but Zazie dans le métroseems a weird film even for Malle, a giddy foray into farce where nothing remains still (or intact) for long. But perhaps fittingly, it’s also a film that captures the director’s sense of the mercurial nature of identity with a kind of gleeful, manic relish.

1960 was, a year for bold statements in French cinema. Godard’s Breathless hit Paris theaters in March, hot on the heels of Truffaut’s 400 Blows the previous year. Malle’s films often dovetail quite neatly with those of the Nouvelle vague, even anticipating their work in some ways, but he was never quite a card-carrying New-Waver. In many ways, he was much more of a self-conscious craftsman, even taking pains to highlight his IDHEC training against his contemporaries’ more off-the-cuff amateurism. Thus the joke that comes early in his Zazie: a gaggle of characters hops into an old clunker that won’t start, and one character quips, “What do you want? It’s the Nouvelle vague!” Just like the métro, which is hobbled by a perpetual strike for the duration of the film, everything about the hip, new cinematic Paris is shabby, chaotic, and dysfunctional.

At the same time, Zazie’s Paris is still very much the same urban playground as that of Godard and Truffaut, a vivid wonderland of possibility and romance for its inhabitants. But for Zazie, the strong-willed, free-spirited, slightly malevolent, and alternately charming and irritating little gamine of the film’s title, it’s also an invitation to derision, mischief, and hilarity, an adult world that’s easily mocked, subverted, and manipulated for the purpose of acquiring more important things, like ice-cream and blue jeans. (The realization of her grandest wish, a ride on the métro, is hampered that pesky labor strike.) Zipping into Paris from the provinces with her promiscuous mother, who’s in town for a 24-hour lovers’ tryst and hastily foists the brat on her odd, enormous Uncle Gabriel, the unremittingly precocious Zazie takes the opportunity to wreak havoc on Paris’s community of heterogeneous weirdoes by shoplifting, casting insults, and making lewd comments and accusations. (Both Queneau’s “children’s” novel and Malle’s “children’s” film are remarkably inappropriate for children.) When a kindly lady, late in the film, gently advises Zazie that she should not brutalize big people, Zazie responds with her favorite catchphrase: “My ass!”

Declaring that her aspiration is to be a teacher just so she can “piss off the little brats,” Zazie functions as a parodic opposite to the sensitive and introspective young Antoine Doinel (to say nothing of the tender, airborne lad of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon). But even so, she also asserts a theme dear to Truffaut: the resilience of children in the face of cruelty, even perversity, of the adult world. If anything, it’s the grown-ups who are the crazy ones, awkward messes of contrary passions and pretensions. None so embodies these contradictions as Uncle Gabriel (a wonderful early performance by Philippe Noiret), the eloquent, pompous, dimwitted, and perfumed dandy, who spends his nights as a Spanish ballerina. (“An elephant in a tutu,” Zazie later describes him, once she finally learns the truth about his occupation.) Though Zazie often accuses him of being a “hormosessuel,” despite not knowing what the word means, he attracts all manner of affection from lady-admirers and is married to the stunning Albertine, who is herself a paradox, being somehow icy and doting all at once. (She will enact her own sort of transgender performance by the film’s end.) And then there’s Trouscallion, a.k.a. Pedro Surplus, a.k.a. Aroun Arachide: policeman, con man, or pervert (what’s the difference?), who shadows Zazie around Paris with indefinite – but definitely creepy – intensions. Against all this polymorphous perversity, Zazie’s embarrassing, foul-mouthed frankness seems wholly warranted.

To match Zazie’s adorable abuse of her elders, Malle imports a great deal of Queneau’s verbal acrobatics (subtitlists, beware!), while deploying seemingly every cinematic sleight of hand he can think of (or afford). He shows a particular flair for silent-comedy camera-tricks and devices: jump-cuts and fast-motion, endless slapstick and chase sequences, continuity craziness and sub-Mélièsian mischief. Characters change wardrobes, genders, even races within a single sequence, scenery shifts under the actors’ feet or collapses on their heads, and any kind of violence – from slaps to muggings to gunshots to the head – might occur at any moment. An utterly queasy sequence atop the Eiffel Tower and a logic-free car chase in a traffic jam suggest a Parisian cityscape in which the four fundamental interactions of physics simply do not apply. Even the billboards that form the city’s backdrop – massive nonsensical Cubist assemblages of colors and letters designed by photographer, filmmaker, and former Fernand Léger student William Klein – give the sense of a world completely unmoored from reason. (And this several years ahead of Godard’s masterful détournements of advertising and the printed word in A Married Woman and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.)

All of this concludes the only way it can: with a riot, and an extraordinarily drunken and violent one at that. In this mélee – which Queneau described as a “magma humain” – wait-staff, tourists, neighborhood cranks, and a torch-juggling polar bear demolish a restaurant before being descended upon by a sinister gang of police and brown-shirts. For a film that seems so deceptively apolitical and jolly, it’s a shocking, dark, and brutal ending, played with the cavalier attitude of a Frank Tashlin finale or a live-action approximation of The Itchy & Scratchy Show.

But Zazie, forever nonplussed by the lunacy of the adult-world and tuckered out from a long day of crafty subversion, sleeps through the whole thing. After fomenting a revolution, she misses the war, now seemingly exhausted by the intolerably juvenile behavior of her elders. And even after the strike ends, she still misses her chance to ride the métro.

Video:
Zazie dans le métro was filmed at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and Criterion’s full frame high-def transfer presents the image as intended, with a strong, nuanced color palette that contrasts the colorful world of Zazie’s imagination with the realities of 1960s Paris. Details are strong, with natural skin tones and nice attention paid to texture, particularly fabrics. Gabriel’s checkered suit would have caused havoc on older televisions, but every black-and-white square is evident here. In a couple of scenes, the grain threatens to overwhelm the screen, but these appear to be spots where the original film also would have lacked the sharpness of the surrounding material. The print is otherwise free of scratches or damage, and there is no digital noise to speak of.

Sound:
The French soundtrack has been mixed as an uncompressed monaural audio track. The sound is clear and crisp, with good volume levels and no distortion.

The optional English subtitles are well done and easy to read.

Extras:
Criterion releases Zazie dans le métro in its usual packaging model, with a double-sided cover and a thick accompanying booklet. The book features photos, credits, new liner notes, and additional illustrations by cover artist Yann Legendre.

On-disc extras begin with vintage interviews with Malle, two with the original author Raymond Queneau, and Zazie herself, Catherine Demongeot. These all come from French TV from around the time of the film’s release, totaling nearly half an hour all together. There is also a pre-existing interview (about 10 minutes) with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who went on to direct many films himself; here he is discussing working with Louis Malle.

Le Paris de Zazie is a short film from 2005 revisiting the movie’s locations with the assistant director, Philippe Collin. It’s always interesting to see what changes and what stays the same over the years.

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