Criterion // 1960 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // July 5th, 2011
Zazie dans le métro is a bit of stream-of-consciousness slapstick, wall-to-wall with visual gags, editing tricks, and effects.
Louis Malle was dizzily eclectic in his choice of story and the appropriate shooting style to match the script. His first two feature films were shot in black-and-white: a romantic drama entitled The Lovers, and Elevator to the Gallows, a noir thriller. In a complete about-face, Malle's third feature, Zazie dans le métro, based on Raymond Queneau's celebrated French novel, was a brightly colored, surrealistic comedy.
Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), a prepubescent girl who is the embodiment of the enfant terrible, is shuttled off to Paris for a stay with her cross-dressing uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, Cinema Paradiso), giving Zazie's mother a chance to spend some quality time with her lover. Zazie's only interest in the City of Lights is to ride the subway, but the Metro is closed due to a strike. Thwarted in her ambitions, the young girl quickly escapes the not-so-watchful eye of her uncle and embarks on a madcap tour of 1960s Paris. Zazie's hyperactive imagination intersects reality at various odd angles, resulting in a slew of absurd scenarios that include a cartoonish chase across the rooftops, acrobatic stunts on the Eiffel Tower, and an explosive sauerkraut fight finale.
Regardless of one's estimation of Louis Malle's film oeuvre, he cannot be accused of being stuck in a rut when it came to his choice of scripts and directorial style. The leap from The Lovers -- the movie that resulted in the muddled 1964 Supreme Court ruling on the definition of obscenity -- to the broad comedy of Zazie dans le métro was a daring gamble, one that did not pay off well initially; overall, French cinemagoers were more confused than amused by its manic humor. However, it grew in reputation over the years, and now many critics consider it to be Malle's best film.
The movie becomes somewhat off-putting in its final 30 minutes as it veers further into the territory of social criticism; the silent movie style of slapstick turns mean. Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of angst regarding the paradoxes of modern city life, but the final act lays it on extra thick: one character transforms into a jackbooted fascist; a classic pie fight is performed instead with plates of sauerkraut; and Zazie is almost brained with a crashing chair during a violent brawl that destroys a restaurant. The harsh take on mid-twentieth-century big city life balances somewhat uneasily with the broad comedy, but the movie is still an enjoyable enough romp through most of its running time.
The majority of the extras are from archival videos: a 1960 interview with director Louis Malle (4:54); a 1960 interview with the child actor and her parents (7:39); a pair of interviews with novelist Raymond Queneau; a 2005 interview with Malle's assistant director, Philippe Collin (14:54); an interview with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (10:00); a 2011 audio-only interview with filmmaker and photographer William Klein, artistic consultant on the film (13:06); and an original theatrical trailer. Also included is a full-color booklet featuring an essay by Ginette Vincendeau. It's a decent slate of supplementary material that should prove a helpful guide to the viewer who wants more in-depth knowledge of the film's history.
The Blu-ray transfer is excellent considering the age of the film. Colors are vibrant, with scratches and dirt specks essentially cleaned into non-existence, and the 24-bit LPCM mono soundtrack is clear and generally undistorted. This is not a reference-level disc, but it is likely as close to the original fifty-one-year-old theatrical presentation as one will ever get.
Philippe Collin says in an interview that the cartoon animation genius Tex Avery was the subject of his college thesis. Collin's deep admiration for Tom and Jerry and Avery's cartoons inspired his contributions to the movie, and I found Zazie's cartoon-like dreams and peculiar flights of imagination as she flits about Paris to be the highlights of the film. I prefer a few other of Louis Malle's feature films (My Dinner with Andre first amongst them) over this one, but Zazie dans le métro, with its flippant style and undeniably beguiling charm, should appeal to fans of comic French cinema as well as admirers of silent and early talkie comedies.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated