Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Louis Malle’s looney Parisian romp, and the carnage beneath its silly surface.
Louis Malle’s third anarchic feature takes its cues both from Raymond Queneau’s classic 1959 novel and the nascent Nouvelle Vague. But it departs quite markedly from the (admittedly overstated) hijinks of Godard, et al.; Zazie dans le Métro is a far darker and more sombre film than it is given credit for. On the surface, the adventures of a curious young girl (Catherine Demongeot) visiting Paris for the weekend and causing mayhem as she sulks about the métro not running, seems more Looney Tunes slapstick than anything else. Malle’s film, however, captures a Paris that crumbles and burns, still reeling from its fascistic past, and seething with angst and inner turmoil. It’s packaged as fun and light, a cartoon of silliness, and yet ultimately reveals an artificial city of dreams.
Queneau’s novel looked at the artificiality of language, and the way it is used to construct rigid social hierarchies. The book is full of neologisms, slang, and nonsense, but importantly as far as Queneau was concerned, strongly ordered and coherent. The film adopts this approach, with the first word uttered being a sentence mushed together to form nonsense—yet when the sentence is unpacked, it becomes much more sinister and misanthropic. In effect, Gabriel (Zazie’s uncle, played by Philippe Noiret) heralds the film with, “why do they reek so much?” The symbols of the famous city—a city Zazie is a tourist in—become similarly blurred. The Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul is described by the Parisians as other landmarks such as the Panthéon, Les Invalides, and La Saint Chapelle, but never by its ‘real’ name. The Eiffel Tower is a fragile piece of empty space from which the characters almost fall. The métro only exists above-ground.
As the film progresses, nothing is stable. Characters shift temporally or spatially, often appearing in more than one place at once. Walls collapse, glass shatters, settings are replaced. The jump cuts used so lovingly in other Nouvelle Vague films become suspicious. The apparent fixed laws of science—gravity, momentum, etc.—are barely followed. Genders are fluid. The Passages, built to keep the undesirables away from the upper class shoppers in the 19th century, becomes a spot for Zazie to create havoc. Even one of Malle’s cameramen is picked up by the characters and thrown asunder. The unstable symbols have their own satirical logic when unpacked. But in amongst this mush of symbols, Malle fills the film with loaded images, whether it’s World War II-era Vichy costumes that characters always want to dust off, rubble from a ‘recent’ but apparently distant conflict, pointed reminders of France’s colonial history (a character who reminisces about the horrors of World War II briefly is replaced by a ‘black’ actor), and the beaten down housewife (Zazie’s aunty), named after the similarly captive Albertine of Proust’s À la recherce du temps perdu.
The film’s damning indictment, however, is best illustrated in Malle’s depiction of Zazie. She isn’t simply the cute rascal who rides into town and leaves with the damage done. She’s damned too. While the book has Zazie as a little bit older, Malle instead presents an even younger character, who ultimately learns nothing despite her curiosity and presumed innocence. Nor does she get any pleasure from the destruction. She is asleep on her final métro ride after all. It’s a sad film despite its pep and zip, as Zazie is destined to be incorporated into the cruel world around her—for all of the carnage that she causes, it’s nothing like the carnage that already exists around her.