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Zazie dans le métro
Director: Louis Malle
Adaptation: Louis Malle & Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau)
Stars: Catherine Demongeot (Zazie), Philippe Noiret (Uncle Gabriel), Hubert Deschamps (Turandot), Carla Marlier (Albertine), Annie Fratellini (Mado), Vittorio Caprioli (Trouscaillon), Jacques Dufilho (Ferdinand Grédoux), Yvonne Clech (Madame Mouaque), Odette Piquet (Zazie’s mother), Nicolas Bataille (Fédor), Antoine Roblot (Charles), Marc Doelnitz (M. Coquetti), Jacques Gheusi (Le gérant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: France
Zazie dans le métro Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Zazie dans le métro Demonstrating early that he was a filmmaker who could never be pigeonholed in terms of story or style, Louis Malle chose to follow his first two films, the taut thriller Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the scandalous romantic drama The Lovers (1958), with an adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s recently published and extremely popular comic novel Zazie dans le métro. The story of a provincial girl exploring Paris over a long weekend, Zazie was immediately deemed “unfilmable” because its subject was language; Queneau, a Renaissance man whose breadth of interests and education ran from mathematics to philosophy to poetry, wrote the book in colloquial French and filled it with comical turns of phrase, neologisms, and phonetic transcriptions, most of which would be lost on screen (some of the dialogue could be kept, of course, but not the overall effect of an entire story told in the colloquial).

That did not stop Malle, however, who along with Jean-Paul Rappeneau adapted Queneau’s novel by finding visual analogues to the author’s literary wordplay. The result is a live-action film that frequently feels like an extended Tex Avery cartoon. Shot mostly on location around Paris in bright, vivid colors that feel slightly unreal, Zazie dans le métro is primarily a compendium of cinematic playfulness, bursting at the seams with visual gags, editing tricks, sped-up photography, and distorting camera angles, all of which contribute to an overall sense of sheer absurdity. Buried somewhere in all the antics is a critique of modern Parisian life, but any intellectual or philosophical intentions are mowed down by the film’s restless imagery, hyperactive rhythms, and overall sense of anarchy. It’s a fun movie in its own way, but also one that wears on you by the end, as Malle exhausts us while exhausting his arsenal of cinematic tricks. The best sequences are an extended imaginary chase that borrows its gags from “Tom & Jerry” cartoons and a trip up and down the Eiffel Tower that is superbly dramatized with dizzy, vertiginous angles. Too much of the film’s energy, however, relies on sped-up motion, which has always struck me as a kind of comic desperation, like someone who tells a joke too loudly.

The film’s heroine is 10-year-old Zazie (newcomer Catherine Demongeot), who is spending a few days in Paris with her Uncle Gabriel (consummate everyman character actor Philippe Noiret in his first major role) because her mother (Odette Piquet) is visiting a new boyfriend. More of a symbol than a character, Zazie is a bundle of energy waiting to explode, and at every possible moment she slips away from the watchful eyes of adult authority in order to explore the city on her own, with her primary goal being to ride the subway even though it is closed due to a strike. More importantly, though, Zazie plays the role of commentator, speaking in blunt, sometimes vulgar terms about the adult behavior around her (I would say that she speaks truth to power as only a child could, but none of the adults around her--a taxi driver, a widow, a shoe repairman, etc.--seem very powerful). The adult world is rendered nonsensical via both Malle’s aesthetic flourishes and Zazie’s acute, often sarcastic observations, which punch constant holes in grown-up pretensions even as she stands in a strangely ambiguous space between innocent childhood (embodied in Demongeot’s wide, toothy smile) and corrupt adulthood (the vulgar language and sexually aware intimations that often emerge from that smile). Despite its tone of comic abandon, some of which would be at home in the 1980s “guerilla comedy” of Jim Abrams and David and Jerry Zucker, Zazie holds a dim view of the modern world, with the heroine proclaiming at the end that the only thing that happened during her misadventures was that she grew older.

From a historical perspective, Zazie dans le métro occupies a curious place in French cinema. In production at the same time and released just after the first films of the French New Wave, including François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), with which it shares an unruly child protagonist and a jaundiced view of the adult world, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959), with which it shares a radical aesthetic of location photography and jump cuts, Zazie would seem to be part of that general movement, but was not due primarily to its having been adapted from a popular and well-received piece of French literature (a no-no in the nouvelle vague, which sought to define itself against the French “cinema of quality,” whose claims of art relied so heavily on literature). However, because of its experimental nature, Zazie hardly fit into mainstream French cinema, either, and therefore it sits in a nebulous middle ground, presaging many New Wave characteristics while also drawing from more literary antecedents, including surrealism. Most of all, though, it demonstrated that Malle was a filmmaker of great versatility, and even if Zazie lacks the heart that makes the greatest of Malle’s films stand out, it is still an intriguing and often very funny attempt to translate something inherently page-bound into something impressively cinematic.

Zazie dans le métro Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Zazie dans le métro is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio French PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Archival video interview with director Louis Malle
  • Two archival video interviews with novelist Raymond Queneau
  • Archival video interview with actress Catherine Demongeot
  • Archival video interview with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau
  • New audio interview with director and photographer William Klein
  • “Le Paris de Zazie” (2005) featurette
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 28, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Zazie dans le metro was Louis Malle’s first color film, and Criterion’s new 1080p high-definition transfer brings out the surreal intensity of the hues with great aplomb. Transferred in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35mm interpositive, Zazie looks fantastic as it maintain the look of a 1960s-era color film. Grain structure is fully intact and the colors look just a few shades off from natural, which enhances the story’s comical surrealism. The image has been digitally restored, and all instances of dirt and age have been removed. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the positive print soundtrack, is likewise clean. The soundtrack relies quite a bit on zany music and goofy sound effects for its cartoonish feel, all of is nicely represented here.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion has dug deep into the French television archives and come up with a host of interview excerpts with people involved with the film. There is a brief interview with director Louis Malle, two with novelist Raymond Queneau, one with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and one with actress Catherine Demongeot, who answers virtually every question with one or two words. Also included is a new audio interview with photographer William Klein, who worked as artistic consultant on the film; “Le Paris de Zazie,” a 2005 video piece that features assistant director Philippe Collin reminiscing about the production while he shows us the various locations in Paris where the film was shot; and the original theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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