Thursday, October 26, 2006

ZAZIE and the Sixties: What Did Que Know?

Back in the early 1980s, I went through a phase of reading a lot of Raymond Queneau, the French surrealist-absurdist écrivain (pictured at left). In addition to reading his convulsively funny EXERCISES IN STYLE (the same literary situation rewritten a hundred different ways, from Hemingway plain to tendrilously Proustian and beyond), I remember wolfing down WE ALWAYS TREAT WOMEN TOO WELL (an Irish heist novel with ridiculously overstated, overdescribed violence – an uproarious “gore” novel, if you will) and, of course, his wonderful ZAZIE – a highly literary, comic wordplay novel about a 12 year old girl’s desire to ride the Métro on her first visit to Paris, which is thwarted by a rail strike and leads to mass chaos. At the time of reading ZAZIE, I was vaguely aware that Louis Malle had somehow made this seemingly unfilmable novel into a film that was seemingly impossible to see.

I was thwarted in my wish to see Malle’s ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO until a few nights ago, when my wish was finally fulfilled by one of the discs in a new R2 import set, LOUIS MALLE COLLECTION VOLUME 1, released by the French label Optimum Entertainment. This initial set (a second is now also available, including the wonderfully weird dream movie BLACK MOON) consists of the films known in America as ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, THE FIRE WITHIN, THE LOVERS, and ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO (yes, that’s the English title!) and all have English subtitle options. All four films are in their intended screen ratios, anamorphic when necessary, but ZAZIE is in standard 1.33:1 dimensions.

Perhaps because of its placement in the set as Disc 4, I watched ZAZIE assuming that it was made circa 1965 or ’66, after the others in the set – which meant that I watched it under the misapprehension that Malle produced it under the influence of Richard Lester. While putting the disc away – very tickled and pleased with what I’d seen, regardless – the packaging informed me that it was actually made in 1960, and later examination of the disc (and watching a supplementary interview with Malle’s brother Vincent) confirmed that Malle’s acutely attentive, damn-it-all-let’s-go-for-it adaptation of Queneau had actually beaten Lester to the punch, at least in terms of what was possible in a feature-length film. Lester’s seminal comic short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM was first shown in 1959, proving that the germ of this kind of manic, vignettish filmmaking was already alive in him, but even so, I think there’s no question that ZAZIE was a huge influence on Lester’s work, especially HELP! (1965). And now that I have seen it for myself, I believe Lester admitted as much himself when he put Leo McKern in a polar bear suit.

ZAZIE too runs, jumps, and stands still. It also accelerates, grinds down to floaty slow-motion during chases through the rues and rooftops of Paris, has people jumping safely to the ground from upstairs windows, hanging off the Eiffel Tower, declaring their love to strangers, throwing bombs, and plump star Philippe Noiret gets to repel the romantic attentions of a bevy of sexy German tourists called the Five Gretchens. The giddy eye at the center of this far giddier hurricane is the foul-mouthed gamine Zazie, played by Catherine Demongeot in the first of only a few film roles. She’s wonderful, a kind of female counterpart to THE 400 BLOWS’ Antoine Doinel (indeed the film could have been called THE 400 BLOWS OUT YOUR ARSE and fit perfectly into Zazie’s sassy vocabulary), and Demongeot reprised her already iconic role a year later in Godard’s UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME (1961). I’m told that ZAZIE played in French theaters without interruption for something like two years. But the novel was a best-seller there too, which is hard to imagine in this country, where our most revered authors are Jackie Collins, Dr. Phil, and Rachael Ray.

Philippe Noiret shows la petite Catherine Demongeot around Paris in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO.

From what I can remember of Queneau’s novel, I must say that Malle did a fantastic, imaginative job of adapting the unadaptable. It ranks, although in stark contrast, with LACOMBE LUCIEN as perhaps his finest work. His methods of adaptation are worth examining. For example, in the novel, the character of Zazie’s aunt is named Marceline (for some reason, she’s Albertine in the movie and played by former model Carla Marlier) and all that we’re told about this wraith-like female is that she’s delicate. “Marceline cleaned the table delicately”, “Marceline took her seat delicately”, “asked Marceline delicately” and so forth. In Queneau’s inspired hands, this simple device piles up deliriously till the Coca-Cola you’re drinking rushes out your nose. But such a literary device was unavailable to Malle per se, so instead he had Marlier play Albertine as a kind of living mannequin, a notion that reaches its peak as she climbs onto a motorcycle and whirrs around at a ridiculous speed through the streets of Paris on a rescue mission, her wide eyes expression unchanging and unblinking as she careens through the metropolis, taking the full brunt of the coming wind. Marlier is ideally cast here, in her first film role, and the VW crowd will be interested to learn that she also later appeared in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD [HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES, 1968], though in Roger Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” rather than Malle’s “William Wilson” episode.

Before seeing ZAZIE, I was under the mistaken impression that the Beatles films had truly launched the spirit of the Sixties in filmmaking, as most people are. But now I have no doubt that ZAZIE was closer to, and may have been, the actual point of ignition. (A good argument, say I, for remaking it – instead of something like DAY OF THE DEAD.) To think that the real instigator behind all the Beatle and Monkee romps, the anarchic glee, the nose-thumbing between the generations, the sheer dizzying no-holds-barred possibilities of Sixties cinema was a bookish Frenchman born in 1903! Incroyable! Suffice to say that the brilliant ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO should be regarded as an essential chapter in anyone’s moviegoing education, especially if they are interested in the story of how the cinema got from, oh, CARNIVAL ROCK to HEAD.

For all my fellow centenary fans: Today would have been the 100th birthday of 1933’s world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera, whose films include the Mussolini-era fantasy classic THE IRON CROWN [LA CORONA DI FERRO, 1941], MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949, in which he’s one of the strongmen pitting his muscle against that of the title character in a nightclub act), and HERCULES UNCHAINED [ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA, 1958], in which he played the lusty earth god Antaeus and challenged Steve Reeves in a memorable scene.

On a closing note, I’m happy to report that VW’s own Richard Harland Smith has joined the blogging crew over at the Turner Classic Movies subsidiary page In his short time there, he’s already knocked out some knock-out postings – one about the relationship between the heroines of PSYCHO and CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and another about his own relationship with an older sister who helped encourage his lifelong love of movies. Once you read these, I’m sure you’ll add to your list of blog favorites.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Netflix, I finally saw this last night after 50 years of wishing (I was born 1942). You captured the film's essence beautifully and intimate all the reasons the film would have died a grisly death in 1960 America. I must admit, though, the continuous racecourse of the film finally wore me down until I was staring at the screen, not laughing. Pacing has a lot to be said for it, or maybe I just had to wait until I was a little too old.

    It's hard to believe this is Malle's first film. Its pure anarchy must have demanded rigid control on set.


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