❉ A personal appreciation of Louis Malle’s stream of consciousness slapstick farce.
One of the leading lights of French New Wave cinema, director Louis Malle is best known for such films as Atlantic City, Pretty Baby, and Lift To The Scaffold with its sublime Miles Davis score. However, for this writer, it’s his 1961 film Zazie dans le Metro, based upon the novel of the same name by Raymond Querneau, that stands out as a highlight of Malle’s impressive body of work. I first came across Zazie on Channel Four one evening, back in a time somewhere in the late ’80s or early ’90s where us cultists got our first flavour of unconventional cinema from clocking Channel Four or BBC2 in the wee small hours.
Zazie dans le Metro is the story of Zazie, a mischievous, intellectually precocious and amazingly foul-mouthed twelve year old girl, who spends the weekend with her Uncle Gabriel (the famous French actor Phillipe Noiret) while her mother meets up with her lover. Her Uncle, a fastidious man, turns out to be a drag queen performer and Zazie is constantly asking if Gabriel is a “hormosessual”. As it happens, Gabriel lives in a flat with a stunningly beautiful woman called Albertine, but as she seems to function more as Gabriel’s housekeeper and haberdasher, that issue is never resolved, merely open to interpretation. Zazie’s only wish is to travel along the Metro, but due to a strike it is closed for the weekend (“Bloody hell!”, she curses, “How dare the bastards do this to me!”) and so her Uncle has to entertain her.
Zazie outrages Gabriel and all his neighbours with her expletive-peppered forthright statements and probing questions, part child prodigy, part Arturo Roi – with her neatly bobbed haircut and red sweater she’s a prepubescent Amelie crossbred with CITV anarchist Marmalade Atkins.
Zazie constantly revels in playing upon the prejudices and hypocrises of the adults that surround her – from her Uncle, to a foolish but mysterious policeman called Trouscallion who changes identity throughout the film, and a stuck-up idealistic rich widow who keeps throwing herself at men. She has particular fun questioning the taxi driver about sex, and outrages Gabriel’s landlord when she first arrives.
The film is full to bursting with cartoon-like moments of visual surrealism and sight gags, including a lengthy chase through Paris when Zazie runs away from Trouscallion after he has bought her a pair of “bloojeanses” (unconventional, phonetic-style spelling is a constant feature of both the English subtitles and the original novel) and a dizzying sequence in which the cast ascend the vertiginous heights of the Eiffel Tower. There are numerous jump-cuts and speeded-up moments that will make you jump and look twice. Often the dialogue track becomes dislocated from the visuals.
The film builds up to Gabriel’s performance at the cabaret he works at. You never actually see the act, just the extravagant and crazed after-show party which rapidly descends into anarchy and chaos, ending in a barely choreographed fight. After an eventful night, the strike ends and the characters get on the Metro and go their seperate ways. Zazie is met by her mother at the station, and her mother asks if anything interesting happened over the weekend. Zazie simply replies: “I’ve grown”.
Quite simply, Zazie dans le Metro is quite unlike any other film you will see – although the surreal visuals and its snotty, absurdist, carnivale humour would appear to have been a big influence on Monty Python and others – and has the amazing ability to suck you into another world for ninety minutes and dazzle you with images and word play. The central character, played by Catherine Demongeot (I wonder what happened to her?), is spell-binding, a pint-sized proto-punk anarchist that will appeal to your inner nonconformist as she runs around winding up the adults and rebelling against anyone who tries to impose their self-appointed authority and morals.
Join Zazie for a weekend in Paris and unleash your inner enfant terrible!
❉ ‘Zazie dans le Metro’ was released on Region 2 DVD in the UK as part of the 4-disc The Louis Malle Collection: Volume 1 (Optimum, 2006 deleted) and is available as a multi-region Blu-Ray from Amazon.