Napoleon, My Ass!
Swap stark black and white for lurid color; and sultry, brittle Jeanne Moreau for unknown tween gamin Catherine Demongeot. For his third feature, Louis Malle turned from the cool meditations on love and murder that characterized his first two efforts, to embrace anarchic farce. Beneath the slapstick, color, and special effects, though, Zazie dans le Métro (1960) presents a fractured post-war culture as troubled as the sterile, corrupt world of The Lovers and Elevator to the Gallows (both 1958).
Ten-year-old Zazie comes to Paris to stay with her uncle Gabriel while her mother has a fling with her lover. After a strike dashes Zazie’s hopes of spending her visit riding the Métro, she leads Gabriel and his entourage on an increasingly disruptive romp through the city.
Based on Raymond Queneau’s popular slang- wordplay-, parody- and pastiche-filled novel, Zazie dans le Métro translates the book’s assaults on literary tradition into “a critique of the language of cinema”, as Malle put it in an interview conducted just prior to the film’s premiere and included on the Criterion Collection DVD. Distorted close-ups, fast motion, time-lapse, jump cuts, slow motion, and violations of the rules of continuity editing undercut narrative coherence, and crowd the frame with so much information that it takes multiple viewings to notice it all. Watch carefully, for example, the scene between Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli) and Gridoux the cobbler (Jacques Dufilho), and you’ll see Dufilho replaced, for a split second, by a black actor wearing the same costume.
At the source of the disorder is the potty-mouthed Zazie (Demongeot), whose favorite word is “cul” (ass), a queen of misrule in training, pushing all the adults to distraction—running away, accusing men of inappropriate behavior, inquiring about everyone’s sexuality—without learning a thing during her hectic time in the capital.
Development also seems unavailable to the adult characters, like Trouscaillon, who claims not to remember his own name or age. Paris itself, which location shooting makes a major character in the film, suffers an identity crisis in Zazie dans le Métro. A cluttered amalgam of detritus out of time—a flea market, a city lot filled with rubble presumably left over from World War II, the bar in Gabriel’s building transformed from a gilded Victrola-equipped saloon to a sleek modern spot sporting a juke box—Paris mystifies its inhabitants, who can’t even keep landmarks and tourist attractions straight.
As Zazie capers down Passage Brady, one of Paris’s remaining 19th-century covered arcades, the film recalls Walter Benjamin’s unfinished project turned obsession—to write the history of the nineteenth century based on remnants like those preserved in the arcades. The failed attempt to recover and explicate the past is a recurring theme for Malle. Alain Leroy, the suicidal writer in Malle’s The Fire Within (1963) once hoped to open a store selling prewar memorabilia, but he, no more than Gabriel (Philippe Noiret)—who boasts, unconvincingly, that air raids never frightened him during the war—can make sense of France in the aftermath of the second war to end all wars.
Hellzapoppin it’s not. In an audio interview recorded this April (an exclusive DVD extra), William Klein, artistic consultant on Zazie dans le Métro, argues that Malle couldn’t overcome his intellectual, “Cartesian” tendencies to exploit fully the abandon offered by farce. Zazie dans le Métro wasn’t the success that Malle’s first two films were, and the sadness at the heart of this ostensibly comic feature might be to blame. (Queneau, in one of two interviews on the DVD, hints that the many readers who found his book hilarious were not reading carefully enough; Malle may have made a faithful adaptation after all, but just didn’t hide the seriousness of the project as well as the novelist had).
The melancholy in Zazie dans le Métro peaks in a dazzling, masterful sequence set on the Eiffel Tower. Viewers who suffer from a fear of heights may want to take some Dramamine before watching this portion of the film. Cabbie Charles (Antoine Roblot) and Zazie scamper carelessly down a spiral staircase, at various speeds, with Paris spread out beyond them. Gabriel stands atop an elevator, shot from below as he rises through the open framework of the tower, then viewed from above with the city slipping away behind and beneath him. He perches at the edge of a platform, almost falling over. He climbs up through the ironwork at the top of the tower, shot from above, and dangles from a support.
All the while he drones in a portentous voice a lugubrious monologue about the unreality of the world and the rapid, meaningless passing of the generations; “All Paris is a dream. Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream . . .”; “Pleasure bringeth them, and a hearse taketh them away”.
Zazie dans le Métro builds to a destructive, cacophonous finale, but never really reaches a conclusion. The closest the plot comes to offering a traditional climax is the anticipated performance of cross-dressing Gabriel, who dances as a Spanish ballerina. We hear but don’t see Gabriel perform, in the tradition of absurdist narratives, like Waiting for Godot, in which an expected event doesn’t happen. Zazie never rides the metro, either (she travels on the elevated portion of the train at the end of the film, but sleeps the whole way).
The film ends as it begins. While the opening credits roll, the camera rushes down the tracks as the train carrying Zazie approaches Paris. Zazie dans le Métro closes with the same view, in reverse, as she returns home. It’s as if the events of the film never took place.
Interviews with Demongeot and her parents, screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and assistant director Philippe Collin, as well as an excellent essay by Ginette Vincendeau in the booklet, round out the extras.