Louis Malle’s deceptively zany, effervescent Zazie dans le métro, based on Raymond Queneau’s novel, is a sobering, coherent work for all its quick pace, sharp cuts, camera tricks, and Keystone Kops-sight gags. I haven’t read the book, but its basic idea, Roy Armes has written, “is of a very young girl with a startling vocabulary of vulgar words who is more mature and balanced than all the adults around her and who spreads havoc everywhere she goes”—all this, “a pretext for a series of subtle and often very funny variations on language and orthography.” Malle and co-scenarist Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Armes says, “have tried to find visual equivalents for Queneau’s puns and word-play . . .” I am not convinced, however, that this is all that Malle was after.
Eleven-year-old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot, spirited, impishly charming) will spend two days in Paris with her Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, superb) while her mother spends some quality time with her latest lover; the rapid, forwardly-advancing train’s-eye view of Zazie’s entrance into the city bursts with her excitement and anticipation. Alas, her first attempt at eluding Gabriel’s custody, accompanied by another speedy forwardly-advancing camera, this one keyed to the perspective of the running child, is stymied by a shut, locked gate; Zazie won’t be able to realize her dream of using the Métro for her independent exploration of Paris: the strike by Métro workers prohibits this. Malle’s use of accelerated camera speed delights; but what have we learned thus far? At least in part, Zazie’s abandonment of her uncle mimics her abandonment by her mother, which she must feel more keenly than she lets on; the adult world impinges on her child’s world of impulse and escape—and, we shall see, endangers her and it. Indeed, by extension, this world of hers also endangers adults; for, as she proceeds to “escape” Uncle Gabriel, “losing” him as she explores Paris on her own on foot, so must he experience the worrisome possibility of losing her.
Yes, it is hilarious to watch the parentally-unprotected Zazie playfully elude the grasp of a predator—the inspiration, perhaps, for the (much) lower-level Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990). But it is not without purpose that Malle updates the pervert’s progress elsewhere throughout the day, and we cannot quite forget that the intervention of camera tricks is essential for Zazie’s “safety.” Zazie is certainly smart and considerably knowing, and she may appear to be on top of things; but what are we to make of her tossing away the pearl from one of the oysters on her restaurant lunch plate, bought for her by the predator? Like the rest of us at her age, Zazie is neither as smart nor as secure as she thinks she is.
Two major criticisms have been leveled at this film, in addition, that is, to the unfilmable nature of the book on which it is based. One is its coldness. Actually, Malle’s personality in his films is pretty much always cold; but here he uses that coldness to the film’s expressive advantage. The action unfolds in a world whose coldness is signaled by a mom’s dropping off her daughter so she can fuck her head off. The other complaint is that the film loses its comedic steam, growing tiresome through the repetition of its antics. Exactly. Malle’s ironical undercutting achieves the precise form he is aiming at. Only those who bewilderingly presume that Zazie dans le métro is intended to be a light, diversionary farce will find it falling short of the mark.
Ultimately, the “liberty” and “freedom” that Zazie extravagantly brandishes are an illusion, a mirage, as Malle ponders the fate of those in France who have forgotten, or can never know firsthand, how freedom was not so long ago snatched away.
This is one of Louis Malle’s best films.
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