Early in Louis Malle’s whirlwind folly Zazie Dans le Metro, a snarky parrot berates its verbose owner (the bird clucks, “All you do is yacky-yack!”). Like every attempt at quelling the insanity in this loony cinematic adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel, the demand falls on deaf ears. The fowl’s telling commentary turns out to be a rare kernel of truth in a breakneck carnival ride of falsities, where literally every frame is constructed around lies, delusions, reversals, and outbursts. Zazie Dans le Metro calls attention to the deceitful essence of communication, but it also skewers representations of directionality, love, and perspective. Each colorful sequence, often perforated by jump cuts and time-lapse photography, brims with kinetic half-truths and glaring paradoxes. As a result, the Paris of the 1950s becomes a wonderfully topsy-turvy world quickly spinning out of control—the perfect jungle gym for a child’s evocative imagination.
The titular Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), a whip-smart 10-year-old girl who arrives in Paris to visit her saucy uncle, Gabriel (Philippe Noiret), immediately understands the contradictions of the adult world around her. Instead of repelling the obvious idiocy of their words, she spins the absurdist merry-go-round into hyperdrive. As Gabriel and his dazed cabbie friend, Charles (Antoine Roblot), give Zazie a perfunctory and contradictory tour of Paris, she yells at them to “stop spouting crap!” The bystanders outside the car hear the young girl’s foul mouth, and reply aghast, “It’s the New Wave!” Generational conflict in post-war France influenced the work of Godard, Truffaut, and even Polish outsider Jerzy Skolimowski, but for Malle it’s an open forum to revel in mass anarchical comedy.
Gabriel takes Zazie back to his ridiculously decorated apartment above an ornate French bar housing a myriad of kooky characters, including the aforementioned fowl, a lusting barmaid, and an angry bartender who ridicules Zazie as a disease of putrid youth. Also present is Gabriel’s self-proclaimed wife, Albertine (Carla Marlier), more a maid than a matron, who earnestly serves anyone within shouting distance. In many ways the most fascinating character in Zazie Dans le Metro, Albertine is a serious, work-oriented, and driven woman that’s basically the antithesis to every other character present. When she later becomes the object of affection to a shape-shifting character named Trouscaillon (Vittorio Capriolli), his foiled sexual pursuits become a recurring emblem of Malle’s scathing gender critique.
But this is Zazie’s cool world, and her unsettled perspective guides every hop, step, and jump through cinematic time. When she escapes her uncle’s guise and wonders off into the Parisian unknown, Zazie Dans le Metro begins a continuous sprint that never really stops. Zazie traverses wild crowds, stifling traffic, and cramped interiors, maneuvering through the spaces with a zest for rebellion and protest, spouting crap every chance she gets. During her adventurous tirades, landmark settings are stripped of their historical importance and throttled by buffoonery. The piece de resistance comes atop the Eiffel Tower, where Zazie, Gabriel, and a United Nations of tourists frolic at the very top of the monument, hang from the rafters, then slowly descend using a squadron of gigantic balloons. The physical world has become their mental playground.
Malle’s rapid pacing quickly overwhelms all sense of character, giving each conversation an unrelenting speed that borders on exhausting. Even moments where the characters should be resting takes on a sense of urgency, the most hilarious coming when Zazie devours a plate of frites in a matter of seconds (thanks to some brilliant editing) before cruising through a mountain of mussels with effortless precision. Shucking each shellfish like a professional fishmonger, Zazie squirts juice onto the perfectly ironed suit of her dinner companion, slowly breaking him down one burst of liquid at a time. Zazie even finds a pearl in one of her mussels, just another moment of subversion so integral to her satirical experience.
That Zazie Dans le Metro spends nearly 90 minutes collecting characters and contradictions, it’s perfect the film ends in a massive dinner party that quickly degenerates into what is practically WWIII. The battle between rude French waiters and the film’s many kooks is something epic, an all out brawl for control of young Zazie’s memory bank. As the young girl rests her head on the table, tired from her weekend events, the surrounding space becomes a logjam of broken bottles, machine-gun fire, and brutal beatings that rival any knock-down, drag-out western bar fight. The walls of the establishment literally start to break down, disintegrating from the pressurized fighting that cannot be contained, and Zazie, Gabriel, and a few other survivors escape through a floorboard. The only responsible one in sight, Albertine rushes the young girl to her departing train just on time. When asked what she did over the weekend by her indifferent mother, Zazie replies, “I got older.”
Up to this point, Zazie Dans le Metro has treated age like an inconsequential moniker. But in this parting moment, Malle bookends Zazie’s haunting admission to something Charles says during that ridiculous tour ride at the beginning of the film: “I’ve got a confession in my craw. It’s confessionitis.” It seems the bitter truth does exist within the small cracks of Malle’s manic comedic mosaic, revealing itself only when societal facades whither away completely. Over the course of her weekend blitzkrieg, Zazie learns the power of misdirection, the fragility of adulthood, and in turn, the art of cinema.
The high-definition digital transfer of Zazie Dans le Metro brings out the vibrant splashes of color so important to Louis Malle's and artistic consultant William Klein's vision of Paris. Every moment has some type of quick movement or special effect dependent on clarity, so this precise visual rendering ends up heightening the film's impact as a slapstick comedy. The intricate crafting of mise-en-scène by the filmmakers of Zazie Dans le Metro allows every manic frame a crisp sense of detail and nuance to match the bright hues. The mono soundtrack has also been cleaned up, and the dialogue and sound effects are wonderfully loud and abrasive; the layers of audio are so complex it's hard to know which direction to look.
The supplemental package for Zazie Dans le Metro is on the slight side for a Criterion disc, but there are a few bright spots nonetheless: a string of archival video interviews featuring Malle, novelist Raymond Queneau, actress Catherine Demongeot, and screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau. The Malle segment is especially interesting, which shows a young director audacious enough to take on the "unfilmable" book by Raymond Queneau. He talks about the screen character of Zazie, specifically saying she "goes beyond the critique of language" and her "violence denounces the absurdity of the modern world." A short documentary called "Le Paris de Zazie," where the film's first assistant director Philippe Colin visits some of the landmark spots of Zazie Dans le Metro and retraces his own memories filming with Malle and Klein, is dated and poorly constructed, but it gives some valuable insight to the process of on-location filming important to New Wave filmmakers. But the best part of this disc is the audio interview with Klein, who remembers his experiences as artistic consultant on Zazie Dans le Metro, including his realization that it would be impossible to "co-direct" a mainstream film, as Malle had promised him early in production. Also included: the original theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.
"A reverie with a dream," Zazie Dans le Metro is a frenzied fusion of Louis Malle’s absurdist sensibilities and William Klein’s colorful visual mash-ups, and the result is something totally insane.