Zazie dans le metro: Criterion Collection
July 19, 2011
Zazie dans le metro (1960) is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Raymond Queneau, former surrealist turned respected poet, novelist and critic. The book was a huge hit in France and considered a comic masterpiece, one that playfully experimented with the French language. Director Louis Malle took up the challenge of adapting a book that was all about words and language and translated it into visuals. It was also a radical departure from his previous two films, the New Wave noir Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the controversial The Lovers (1958), which may explain why Zazie dans le metro confounded critics and audiences alike when it was first released.
Malle establishes the film’s irreverent credentials right from the start by making fun of the reputation French people have for not washing regularly (“They’re not even Paris’ prize stinkers.”). Uncle Gabriel (Noiret) meets his precocious 9 ½-year-old niece Zazie (Demongeot) at the train station and is entrusted by her mother to look after the child for two days. She wants to take the Metro but they are on strike much to her chagrin (“It ain’t about politics. It’s about bucks,” a taxi cab driver tells her.). She’s an adorably insolent child who gives her uncle and the cab driver a hard time.
Malle takes us through the streets of Paris at high speed in a carefree way that presents a romantic view of the city. Zazie repeatedly wants to ride the subway, refusing to go to museums or acknowledge the historical architecture Gabriel points out as they drive through the city. The next morning, Zazie wakes up before her uncle and goes out to explore the city on her own where she meets a colorful assortment of characters along the way.
Malle wisely parallels the books’ experimentation with words by doing the same with the film’s visuals with a playful style that utilizes sped up film, jump cuts and time-lapse photography. There are visual gags aplenty as Zazie walks through a market and a little boy is on sale in a stand with a sign that reads, “Second Hand.” There is an amusing bit where she eats messy clams and keeps staining a vain man’s expensive suit until he’s reduced to a nervous wreck. There is also a surreal chase through the streets as the man in the dapper suit chases multiple version of Zazie around in a manic cat and mouse game.
Malle gets a terrific performance out of Catherine Demongeot as the irrepressible child who just wants to ride the Metro and wreaks havoc on those around her in the meantime. One can see the same playful tribute to cinema and irreverence for stuffy convention with Richard Lester’s Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Imagine if the film Amelie (2001) was entirely about the title character when she was a child and like that film Zazie dans le metro is a playful love letter to Paris with a free-spirited protagonist. Malle’s film is love-action cartoon, or an issue of Mad magazine brought to life, with exaggerated camera angles, nonsensical set pieces and an anarchic spirit that thumbs its nose at convention and authority. This is a film in which we see Paris through the eyes of a child but it also is a celebration of cinema that plays fast and loose with logic and style.
An interview with Louis Malle from a 1960 French news program. He liked the challenge of adapting a difficult novel and using it to critique the grammar of cinema while still retaining the author’s satirical approach. He talks about screening the film for Charlie Chaplin and his reaction to it.
Actress Catherine Demongeot is interviewed for French television in 1960. We see her at home playfully reciting key lines of dialogue from Zazie dans le metro. The young actress keeps her answers brief and to the point all with a bemused expression.
There are two interviews with author Raymond Queneau. The first is from a 1959 French T.V. program where he talks about writing the book and his working methods in general. The second interview was done in 1961 and he talks about what makes him laugh and what doesn’t. Interestingly, he comes across as a mostly humorless man.
“Le Paris de Zazie” is a short documentary by Malle’s assistant director Philippe Collen who gives us a tour of the Paris locations used in the film. He points out that a lot of the film was actually shot in the studio. He tells several filming anecdotes that pertain to the locations used.
Also included is an interview with Jean-Paul Rappeneau who co-wrote the screenplay with Malle. He touches upon the challenge of getting the film rights and then finding a way to translate such an unusual novel into a film.
There is an audio interview with filmmaker and photographer William Klein who acted as the artistic consultant on the film. He talks about how he got involved and what it was like to work with Malle.
Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer.