Zazie Dans Le Metro is one of those “Where have you been all my life?” kind of movies, and it’s weird because I’m very fond of Louis Malle’s work elsewhere (Vanya On 42nd Street being a major reason I fell in love with arthouse cinema as a teenager) but despite that I’ve only seen a couple of his other films, and that short list didn’t include this particularly acclaimed comedy based on the much loved French comedic novel by Raymond Queneau.
It’s fairly different from the novel however, and deliberately so with Malle wishing to capture its spirit rather than take on a straight adaptation. That said it hits the main plot points of the book, but it’s a lot more playful, and it makes beautiful use of its visual elements and breaks with reality as the young girl Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) does things which are point blank impossible, and as fun as the book is it very rarely chooses to do that.
It has a fairly basic story as Zazie is a young girl who’s dumped on her Uncle (Philippe Noiret, in one of his earliest roles) for a couple of days while her Mum goes off to spend time with her new lover. The film isn’t as dark as the book as though Zazie’s mother was responsible for the death of her abusive father in both, in the film there’s no hints of the sexual abuse she almost suffered at the hands of subsequent partners, but in other ways it’s largely similar as Zazie’s more than a handful for her Uncle, or, if you enjoy being blunt in the same way the film does, a right cheeky little shit and then some. But she’s also a very funny one who causes chaos when she buggers off one morning and takes a wander through Paris on her lonesome, all the while sardonically commenting on proceedings and taking advantage of whoever she can.
It’s a playfully shot work, as the kid desperately wants to ride on the metro but a strike prevents her from doing so, and the men try and find her but are easily distracted. It contains an amazing chase sequence early on which breaks the rules of reality with gay abandon as some dodgy bloke is chasing her and at times there’s more than one of her, an old lady version, then the kid’s suddenly driving a car and throws a bomb at her pursuer in what are actually some of the less outlandish moments, all of which are hilarious. It features the kind of imagery that really has to be seen to be believed, and is why I prefer the film to the admittedly great book, especially as while both share a section where Zazie and her Uncle visit the Eiffel Tower in the film it’s far more vertigo inducing, and again Malle makes superb use of the visual element to generate some pretty damn big laughs.
The rest of the film has a very slight narrative as the Uncle casually prepares for his evening job as a drag queen (something the film pleasingly considers as completely normal and never mocks), and it’s an enjoyable one at that, but Malle (and Queneau) really weren’t too concerned with having a consistent storyline and it’s more about the madness and oddness of events that they’re wanting to explore, and the commentary they make about life and society.
There’s a fair sprinkling of the downright odd elsewhere, so the film also features a fantastic cameo from Sacha Distel, the Uncle being abducted by four adoring beautiful women, a rather desperate woman looking for love in all the wrong places, and a finale with a stunningly orchestrated scene that works beautifully as a fitting conclusion to everything we’ve bared witness to.
The novel was also famous for its use of language and the slang that Queneau created, and though present here it’s less of an element. That’s not an issue though, if anything the novel overuses the device and it’s occasionally an irritant, and nothing in this absolute classic of a film can be described as that. It’s a playful, occasionally satirical but largely just out and out crazy slice of absurdism, a film which never lets up when it comes to being inventively ridiculous, and it’s not just one of the best comedies of the sixties but of all time.
A great article about the film can be found here.