Friday, December 23, 2011

Zazie dans le Metro (1960) - #570

What's all this mess?

Zazie dans le Metro is a film I wish I'd seen thirty years ago, or maybe even further back, when I was still a teenager. Its wild blend of candy-colored surrealism, cartoon zaniness, playful linguistic twists and rampant unpredictability might have changed my life back then, or at least opened up some lines of inquiry that for various reasons never presented themselves to me in my earlier-in-life experiences. As it was, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, playing punk rock and wrestling with the anarchist impulses that time and experience gradually sublimated into more socially constructive outlets, a film like Zazie might have galvanized my creative focus in a whole new direction, away from music and literature, and more toward cinema in its more experimental and provocative manifestations.

Back then I had become aware of Bunuel's early surrealist films, and I dabbled in the overwrought wordplay of writers like James Joyce and Jack Kerouac in his more manic, unhinged moments. I'd begun to see deeper levels of subversive wit and existential commentary in the brash antics I enjoyed in Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts. I'd watched my share of head-trip stoner movies with their pseudo-philosophical banter and self-consciously dream-like sequences, and seen even more films in a stoned condition myself, which may have had more of an adverse effect on my appreciation of cinema than I ever suspected at the time. Zazie dans le Metro takes the best aspects from these occasionally incompatible cultural streams and whips them into a frenzied concoction with a distinctly French flavor to it, creating a film quite singular in my experience, an explosive, joy-inducing romp that I'll just have to watch with some frequency to make up for all that lost time.

When I learned earlier this year that Criterion was going to release Zazie in tandem with another, much later film from Louis Malle (1975's Black Moon,) I didn't look too deeply into the matter. Black Moon intrigued me when I learned of it's quasi-sci-fi attributes and the fact that Malle filmed it on his private estate. A spectacle of vintage mid-70s self-indulgence began to take root in my imagination, and I made a priority of watching Black Moon fairly soon after I brought it home. Knowing that Zazie was coming up soon in my timeline for this blog, I reserved it for watching within its chronological context, so this past week was my first viewing of a film that I vaguely expected would be something akin to Albert Lamorrisse's The Red Balloon, only with more amped-up silliness, owing to hints of its reputation and the undeniably goofy but charming cover illustration by Yann Legendre. You know, a playful tour of Paris from a delightful child's-eye point of view: wistful, innocent, charming, slightly nostalgic, that kind of thing.

But my presumptuous expectations were favorably challenged and raised a couple weeks ago when my colleague Travis George at listed Zazie dans le Metro as his second-favorite Criterion release of 2011. (Check out the podcast or visit the website to see all of our picks.) His comments informed me that I was in for something quite a bit more raucous and invigorating than the sweet, slightly cock-eyed kids film that I thought Louis Malle had crafted.

To call Zazie dans le Metro a kids film is neither inaccurate nor misleading, but in order for that to be so, we have to clear our minds of the normal assumptions that accompany that label. Based on a popular, linguistically innovative novel that tweaks the French language in a way that reminds me a bit of Anthony Burgess' neologisms in A Clockwork Orange (just based on what I've read about Raymond Queneu's original text,) Zazie presents us with a foul-mouthed, sarcastic, rambunctious girl around ten years old, who's left in the care of her Uncle Gilbert for a couple of days so that her mother can go have a fling with some loverboy she's meeting in Paris. The uncle has free time during the day to show Zazie around the city because he works as a dancing female impersonator at a Parisian drag club. Zazie is immediately disappointed upon her arrival because, as a girl from the country, her dreams of the big city center around riding on the Metro subway line, which happens to be closed due to a worker's strike. Gilbert's attempt to substitute aimless taxi rides around the city quickly prove to be only annoying futilities to Zazie. Her boredom with adult manners and hypocrisies is easily provoked, even though Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Albertine are hardly the old fuddie-duddies that often push kids in that direction. Still, Zazie becomes restless, runs away from her distracted guardians, and we're swiftly embarked on a crazy excursion through some of the most-filmed sites of Paris and a few of its back alleys too. The pace is one of continual acceleration that doesn't stop until lecherous pedophilic pursuits are thwarted, old Tom & Jerry chase scenes get re-enacted complete with exploding props and blackface collateral damage, characters dangle from the steel girders of the Eiffel Tower spouting pseudo-profundities that still carry meaning despite their airy silliness:

...and a culminating food fight in a restaurant overleaps the usual messy slapstick hijinx of such scenes, devolving into a set-shredding chaos that predates The Who, Jimi Hendrix or any other rock god guitar smashers you'd care to name by a good five or six years at least.

And that's just a surface summary of what goes on in Zazie dans le Metro. Poke a little further into it, as I've only begun to myself, and there's no shortage of disturbing, unsettling matters to consider. Zazie's the product of a broken home, one that was fractured by her father's death at the hands of the mother, for misdeeds that are left unspecified but imply some nasty repulsive drunken conduct on his part, probably involving his daughter. The relationships between adults, be they lovers, friends, adversaries or random strangers on the street, are all tainted by various shades of venality, repression and deceit, to the point that Zazie's willful non-conforming brattiness seems like a perfectly reasonable response to the sordid environment her caretakers have led her into. And through it all, besides her ripping vocal commentary, Zazie's trademark gap-toothed grin beams at us from the screen, taking unmasked and undiluted delight in giving these insane grown-ups the dismissive brush-off and childish taunts they deserve. Even though there's not a single moment in Zazie dans le Metro when the titular protagonist closes her eyes and sticks out her tongue, Legendre's cover art perfectly captures her essence and attitude all the same, in a way that Zazie's middle finger or any other gesture might be too easily misconstrued.

Eclipse Review: Late Autumn

Next: Brakhage '60


David said...

I totally agree with you,Dave.This film is only a child film on the surface,I think the director tries to compare the innocence of Zazie to the hypocrisy of those adults around her.Yes,Zazie talks dirty words often,but she is much better than those who looks civilized but morally corrupted.The chasing scene is so much fun,which I interpreted as a big laugh from the director at we adults.If CC has never released these 2 films by Louis Malle,I will never know the director's work is so versatile.

BTW,are you planning to write something like "my fav top 10 CC of 2011"?

Finally,Merry X-mas!!Are you watching Life is Wonderful or Fanny and Alexander? haha

David Blakeslee said...

Hi David! I don't plan to write a list of my Top 10 Criterion films of the year, since I generally only post reviews/essays here and I haven't taken the time to watch all of the new Criterion releases that came out in 2011. I did participate in's annual podcast on that theme, in which several of us listed our three favorites of the year. I chose The Times of Harvey Milk, Fish Tank and Senso as the three I saw that meant the most to me. Listen to the podcast to find out why! :)

My wife and I watched The Shop Around The Corner as our Christmas movie this year, but nothing else specifically holiday related. We haven't had enough snow and been too busy with other things to be in the right mood for those old sentimental Christmas films.

I was also very impressed with Malle's proficiency at making very different types of films so early in his career. Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, and then Zazie! And don't overlook his documentary work! The flea market scenes in Zazie brought to mind his early short Vive la Tour in which he examined the Tour de France bicycle race. I think that was made a year or two after Zazie. I've read some comments from people who are disgruntled with Criterion's obvious affection for Louis Malle, but I think he's terrific and I'm really eager to see more of his stuff as I go forward with this project!

David said...

I will definitely check your podcast dere and I envy your job so much!!

Shop Around the Corner is as good as it gets,Jimmy Stewart is one of my fav actors of all time.

Sometimes I still can't figure out why CC is so choosy about directors,directors like Theo Angelopoulos and Pedro Armordova Almodovar never make it into their list and it seems like they have no plans for it!!

I will try to write my top 10 CC list these two days and they may only be the CCs I watched this year not necessarily all newly published.