As you might expect, my prep for many of my "Great Directors" posts involve hurried marathons of the chosen director's films that I haven't watched yet. Sometimes this is to help make them eligible for a post, and sometimes it's to check off a last few famous titles to scratch my completionist itch. However, I've usually picked out a title to write about for the directors I want to feature well in advance of these marathons. I've never actually found a new favorite during the last mad rush. Until now.
See, I was fully expecting to write this post about Louis Malle's "Lacombe, Lucien," the very engrossing and very timely story of a brutish young man who joins the Nazi party and comes to regret it. Then I watched Malle's 1960 film "Zazie dans le Métro," about a ten year old brat who visits family in Paris and takes the opportunity to run amok. And I was totally, utterly won over immediately. "Zazie" is a clear forerunner of my favorite French fantasy, Surrealist, and magical realist films, like Jean Pierre-Jeunet's "Amelie" and Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It's been cited as a formative influence by A.O. Scott and Richard Ayoade, who saw it when they were kids. Truffaut and Kurosawa were reportedly fans too.
And why wouldn't they be? I can't think of many cinematic children as enchantingly infuriating as little Zazie, played by Catherine Demongeot. With her giant grin, boyish haircut, and bouncy, playful demeanor, she's a perfect little rascal. She's fearlessly demanding, unreasonable, precocious, and smart. Even though the Métro is on strike, she spends the whole movie fixated on riding it. She thinks nothing of throwing around dirty words or joking about being the victim of sex crimes. She runs rings around her poor Uncle Gabriel, Trouscaillon the cop, and any other adult who would try to assert authority over her. And she's perfectly at home in the film's Surrealist version of Paris, a colorful place brimming over with cinematic wonders.
In Zazie's world, shoes tie themselves just offscreen. Balloons have a mind of their own. Grownups are often very silly, and speak in mangled malapropisms. Two of the film's major setpieces are manic chase sequences, and carried out using the cartoon logic of old silent comedies. In the first, Zazie and Trouscaillon traipse all over the city in fast motion, and then play one slapstick gag after another in quick succession with silly props, wild sound effects, and carnival music. In the second, a chaotic car chase through Paris traffic involves several physically impossible stunts and highly unlikely vehicles. Adult characters are wildly exaggerated, both in appearance and behavior, and have a tendency to let their amorous urges get the better of them.
There's so much going on in the film, and the pace is so hyperactive, it can be overwhelming. Zazie herself is exhausted by the final act and sleeps through the concluding brawl in a restaurant. It's a mistake to write the film off as a minor effort, though, just because it's content is so joyfully juvenile. There's a wealth of beautiful shots and inventively composed visuals, brief as some of them may be. The sight of Zazie caught between two mirrors, creating an infinity of doubles, is a highlight. So is the whole weird, wacky Eiffel Tower sequence. I love the little details like a mugging happening in the background of a shot, or a cat wandering into the middle of a chase briefly. It's impossible to take in everything with only a single viewing.
Louis Malle is an interesting figure in French cinema, who was active during the New Wave, and is sometimes treated as part of it, but didn't really have ties to that crowd. He was one of the most versatile French directors, with an impressively variety of films on his resume, but there's really nothing else I've from him that looks like "Zazie." There's his penchant for sexual provocation, and several thoughtful films about the pains of childhood and growing up, but none of this freewheeling, madcap energy. At times the film feels positively experimental, with its pre-"Breathless" jump-cuts and sped-up action that he rarely used anywhere else.
And that just adds to the delightfulness of discovering "Zazie." It's such a surprise on every level, still a little bit shocking and a little bit risque after nearly sixty years. Critics of the era didn't seem quite sure of what to do with it. Audiences were likewise hesitant, though some went ahead and fell in love with it. As for me, I've never seen Paris rendered in such fantastic, frenetic fashion. It's a kid's eye view of the city at the beginning of the New Wave. It's too much of a good thing. And it's wonderful.
What I've seen - Louis Malle
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
The Lovers (1958)
Zazie Dans Le Métro (1960)
The Fire Within (1963)
Murmur of the Heart (1971)
Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
Black Moon (1975)
Pretty Baby (1978)
Atlantic City (1980)
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)