I have come to the conclusion that however eventually irritating Zazie Dans Le Metro becomes, there's no denying that I've never seen a film so magnificent in its sprawling, hyped-up madness. I could call it a cocktail of ‘80s family sitcom tropes, ‘60s Disney movie color, silent movie zaniness, and Godardian self-awareness, but that would sell the movie short. Truthfully, I haven’t seen anything like it, and probably never will. It’s a magnum opus of the cinematic wonders that editing tricks can bring.
When the novel of the same name came out in 1959, France fell onto its back in bewildered amusement. Written in hip colloquial language that introduced all new kinds of slang, an article in Elle magazine hailed the work for starting a new trend of street talk, otherwise called “Zazie speak.” With its pizzaz and unique spunk, many critics rendered the novel to be “unfilmable.” But Louis Malle, one of the biggest names of the 1960s French New Wave, proves them wrong, for better or worse. In truth, the material is probably still unfilmable. But it’s unfilmable as a conventional movie, and Malle conceives something that surely isn’t conventional.
In English, Zazie Dans Le Metro translates into Zazie in the City, an uncomplicated title that covers the vibrating grounds of Paris and the adventures the title character experiences there. Catherine Demongeot portrays the 12-year old Zazie, a fearless, albeit foul-mouthed little girl who is dropped off to stay with her eccentric uncle (Phillipe Noiret) while her mother spends a few romantic days with her latest lover.
Unfortunately, Zazie isn’t the kind of child that babysitters dream to be in charge of. She is raving in her actions, her crooked teeth and tomboyish hair only highlighting her devilish behavior. Only a few hours under her uncle’s care and she takes off, exploring the city and creating chaos wherever she lands.
The plot sounds simple, but the film is more complicated than The Big Sleep. It’s not complicated in the traditional sense; one doesn’t have to follow along with the plot by moving their finger along with the subtitles. The convoluted editing is what turns the film into a zoo of fast-motion and ceaseless, childlike energy. Characters run down stairs and streets with the inhuman speed of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton; the pace streams only at a momentum that could be matched by a superhero, like The Flash. There is never a time to take a smoke break and relax.
The first 45 minutes or so are incredibly stimulating. The presto tempo of the comedy is mystifying and instantaneously refreshing. Zazie Dans Le Metro would make for a great short film. Problem is, it is much too tiring to stretch out for 90 minutes. Those 90 minutes are packed with daring cinematic techniques that are unlike anything else the New Wave ever offered. But like eating 100 banana splits in five minutes, the contrasting tastes venture from deliciousness to irritation rather quickly. By the time the film finished, I was exhausted. I felt like I had just ran a marathon on an uncontrollable treadmill.
But no matter how sapping Zazie Dans Le Metro is, it is absolutely worth a look. It should not be your first New Wave film (I’d head towards Breathless or Jules and Jim), but if you’ve dipped your toes into the waters of the era, then it will deliver pleasures unmatched by its counterparts. Though Demongeot never made it past child acting, she is just as much of a force of nature as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau, or Anna Karina. And they never did screwball this well. B
- Feb. 1, 2015