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 CriterionCast.com 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 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.