217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

“The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”–Jonas Mekas on Zazie dans le Metro

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: When 10-year-old Zazie’s mother leaves her in the care of her exotic dancer uncle for the weekend , the only thing the sassy little girl wants to see is the Metro, but it’s closed due to a strike.  So she sneaks out of her uncle’s apartment and encounters a dirty old man, who is also a policeman, among her many adventures. Her weekend ends when the many friends and adversaries she’s accumulated—including a cobbler, an amorous widow, and a polar bear—find themselves involved in a drunken food fight while the worn-out tyke nods off into dreamland.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zazie dans le Metro is based on the hit 1959 comic novel of the same title by Raymond Queneau (a repentant former member of the Surrealist circle). The book relied heavily on wordplay and was widely thought to be unadaptable to film.
  • Although the film generated a small cult in France, Zazie was Louis Malle’s first flop after beginning his career with two hits (Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers).
  • Some parents were angry at Malle’s film, believing that the sexuality made it inappropriate for children. Zazie originally received an “X” rating (16 and over) from the British Board of Film Classification.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely, it must be Zazie’s impish, gap-toothed smile, which she breaks into whenever she imagines growing up to be a schoolteacher who torments her students by making them eat chalk.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eiffel Tower polar bear; wet dog in a parrot cage; high-heeled six shoe-ter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As Zazie’s transvestite uncle says, “Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream!” If a mad scientist found a way to cross-breed and , Zazie dans le Metro is the movie the mutant hybrid would direct.


The Criterion Collection’s “3 Reasons” video for Zazie dans le Metro

COMMENTS: There’s nothing in Louis Malle’s oeuvre that’s remotely like Zazie dans le Metro. There’s nothing else in the rest of the world of cinema that’s quite like it, either. It’s too absurd for a narrative film, but too focused to be a Surrealist experiment; it’s too good-natured to be counted as a satire, and too disturbing to be called a farce. Ten-year old Zazie’s crooked smile makes your heart melt, but you wouldn’t be shocked to find her tearing the wings off butterflies, either. The gag-a-minute story is about as anarchic as it can possibly be without becoming incoherent, and the constant barrage of dream-logicy jokes challenges the rational mind to keep up. You can understand why even the apparently  indefatigable Zazie falls asleep by the end of that second day, despite the fact that her adult companions are engaged in a loud, drunken brawl at a restaurant. Your mind will need a nap, too, after Malle takes it on a whirlwind tour of a jazzy, surreal Paris at the neon-lit dawn of the 1960s.

With its wordplay, neologisms and nonsense passages, “Zazie dans le Metro” earned author Raymond Queneau comparisons to a French James Joyce. When Louis Malle decided to adapt the novel, he wanted to fracture the language of cinema in the same way that Queneau twisted words. Malle used a constant barrage of editing and camera tricks as his main strategy for achieving this goal. He speeds up and slows down the film (sometimes within the same shot), has people unexpectedly pop into and out of the frame, and uses rear projection effects and tricks of perspective. There’s a shot where Zazie’s uncle talks to her as she sits on his right, and then the camera seamlessly swings around to show her now seated on his left; in another bit, one speaker in a conversation inexplicably appears in blackface in a reaction shot lasting under a second. A five-minute chase scene is the film’s centerpiece and statement of purpose; Malle lifts every gag from the Keystone Kops, “Tom & Jerry” and “Bugs Bunny” cartoons, and the Three Stooges that he can. Zazie is chased into a tunnel, but emerges as the pursuer; they pause to play hopscotch in the middle of the hunt; she hits her adversary with a giant boxing glove and hands him a lit stick of dynamite. These pranks fit perfectly with the movie’s absurd scenarios: this is a film where the protagonists climb the Eiffel Tower and find a sea captain and a shivering polar bear at the top.

As she wanders about Paris, Zazie encounters a strange cast of characters, starting with her uncle (an artiste who dances in drag) and his wife Albertine (who has a mysterious power to hypnotize men with her beauty), and eventually including a dirty old man, an amorous widow with white and lavender hair, a parrot (who complains about the other characters’ yakking) and the aforementioned polar bear, among other eccentric denizens of Paris (the city is itself a character). Zazie almost has the form of a satire on 1960 Parisians, but it doesn’t work that way, because the outsider—the little tomboy from the provinces—is actually nastier than the adults she torments. She has a foul mouth (by 1960 standards) and a habit of kicking her elders in the shin or tossing lit bombs at them; she’s inherently sadistic, and wants to grow up to be a teacher so she can torment France’s future brats: “I’ll make ’em eat chalk! Jab compasses in their rear!” Yet for all that, in the context of the film—a child’s dream of the big city—Zazie still emerges as a likable ancestor of Bart Simpson, a prankster whose job it is to further destabilize an already crazy world.

One facet of Zazie that may mildly disturb modern American viewers is the film’s attitude toward childhood sexuality. Ten year-old Zazie’s curiosity about sex is mostly charming: she wonders what a “hormossexual” is, and brags about being a woman already. Sex interests her, but not love; when the widow wants to share her romantic yearnings, Zazie complains, “more dirty talk?” But there are darker undercurrents. The girl is stalked by a pervert from the Humbert Humbert school, who butters her up by buying her blue jeans; over a lunch of mussels she frightens him with a tale of how her mother buried a hatchet in her father’s head, and got off scot-free. What’s especially disturbing about this incident is not that Zazie doesn’t understand the man’s sinister intentions; it’s that she immediately identifies him as a “dirty old man” and, although she may not know exactly what that entails, she realizes that she can use his unnatural attraction to manipulate the creep into footing the bill for an afternoon’s entertainment. This strand of the tale doesn’t exactly come off as wholesome family entertainment, but it is surprising how innocent Malle manages to make it; from the freewheeling, slapstick tone of the film, we realize that no harm can come to Zazie.

This “disturbing” scene is followed by that extended cartoon chase scene. In true slapstick tradition, Zazie climaxes with a pie-fight; and true to its own off-center style, the “pies” are actually plates of spaghetti with sausages on top. Malle may have attempted to “fracture” contemporary cinema with this comedy, but what  he ends up fashioning isn’t so much revolutionary as reactionary. The camera tricks he uses hearken back to the earliest days of cinema, when every film was an experimental film; the comedy routines are in the tradition of vaudevillians like Charlie Chaplin (an avowed Zazie fan) and , mixed with the anarchy of 1941’s mad musical Hellzapoppin’ (an explicit influence). There’s an innocence to this procedure, but like Zazie herself, it’s a mad innocence, and one that’s all the more attractive because it’s not entirely wholesome. Promoting Zazie on French television, Malle explains: “It begins calmly, and as it progresses the craziness grows and it turns increasingly nightmarish, like a dream raised to the second power… I certainly hope and believe that people will laugh, but I’d be pleased if, beyond the laughter, as they leave the theater they feel shaken up and even a bit afraid.” Thank goodness the Metro was closed during the story, because courtesy of Queneau and Malle, Zazie takes a much wilder ride above ground.

Alfred Eaker adds: Zazie seems proof that Malle never boxed himself in. This is radically different than his other films. I agree wholeheartedly with Kael’s “demonic inventiveness” assessment and the comparison to early silent film aesthetics (more akin to the often mean-spirited Sennett /Keystone antics than the later Essanay). There is also a bit of the Tex Avery spirit here. Oddly, Zazie is both a progressive and decidedly retro. For me, the surreal mix expresses a kind of turbulent charisma that I found winning. I was totally taken with Zazie herself (who reminds of Jackie Coogan), that “stop yakety yaking” parrot and, of course, Carla Marlier. It’s not surprising that this film initially flopped, but its eventual cult status seems perfectly expected.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To Americans, Zazie seemed to go too far—to be almost demonic in its inventiveness, like a joke that gets so complicated you can’t time your laughs comfortably… some critics have suggested that for Americans this comedy sets off some kind of freakish, fantastic anxiety.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“…it’s like a film from Mars, a very *French* Mars.”–Michael Atkinson, Turner Classic Movies (DVD)

“Malle and cinematographer Henri Raichi successfully transformed Paris into the surreal playground that it clearly appeared in the tweenager’s Alice in Wonderland imagination.”–David Parkinson, Empire Magazine

IMDB LINK: Zazie dans le métro (1960)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Zazie dans le métro (1960) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion page has the trailer, a “three reasons” video, Ginette Vincendeau’s essay on the film, and a gallery of art designer William Klein’s photographs

The film that changed my life: Richard Ayoade – Comedian/director describes the influence of Zazie on his life

A Few Hours for the Best of YouthNew York Times film critic A.O. Scott remembers seeing Zazie as a 12-year old boy

Zazie dans le métro – A 2009 “Senses of Cinema” essay by Alice G. Burgin arguing that Zazie is not an atypical comedy in Malle’s oeuvre but part of an auterial tradition of existential inquiry

Program Notes: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO – Charlie Nafus’ notes for the Austin Film Society mostly summarize the supplemental material found on the Criterion disc

LIST CANDIDATE: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960) – This site’s first-pass review of Zazie dans le Metro

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Zazie in the Metro – Raymond Queneau’s original novel, translated into English by Barbara Wright

DVD INFO: Though Zazie was nearly forgotten (especially outside France) soon after release, the Criterion Collection rescued the film from undeserved obscurity with the usual top-notch transfer (buy). The disc includes a meaty collection of extras: contemporaneous interviews with Queneau, Malle, and a shy (and not very Zazie-like) Catherine Demongeot and her parents, as well as reflections by screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, art director William Klein, and the mini-documentary Le Paris de Zazie.

The Zazie Blu-ray (buy) contains the same features, in higher definition.

Criterion issued Zazie as a companion piece to Malle’s other excursion into weirdness, Black Moon (1975), and released them on the same day. Both films feature young female protagonists who don’t fully understand the absurd adult sexual world. Both were Certified Weird.

3 thoughts on “217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)”

  1. As an aside, and a peek into my (somewhat silly) thought processes when compiling the official List: when the Criterion Collection released Black Moon and Zazie at the same time, I thought (and still do) that Zazie was the better film. Yet, because Moon is undoubtedly weirder, and had been suggested for the List by multiple readers, I knew that it would upset some fans if I initially placed Zazie on the List and left Moon off. So I made both “List Candidates” rather than choosing between them. The longer I left them on the shelf, the more apparent it became that both movies should unquestionably make the List; but, I wanted to be sure Moon was put on first.

    1. I’ve long thought that “Black Moon” crowd to be of the torch-bearing type. You wisely played it safe.

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