Best French Films - Cinéma Saturday - Zazie dans le métro - 1960s Paris
From last week's beautiful 17th century setting to this week's firmly in the 20th, French films give us an endless source of inspiration and historic context. Last week's Cyrano de Bergerac, a classic story by Rostand in a beautiful Jean-Paul Rappeneau film left many readers with happy memories of watching the film many years ago. I hoped it inspired you too! If you missed it, find that blog post here.
This week we are firmly in the hustle and bustle of 1960s Paris with ten year-old Zazie, who you might call an original Amélie-like figure. It was no small job turning Raymond Queneau's hilarious novel (1959) full of literary and linguistic tricks into this energetic comedy with masses of visual humour. It's part of what makes this a cult film classic by Louis Malle. Let's find out more!
Cast & Crew
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini,Vittorio Caprioli, Jacques Dufilho, Yvonne Clech,Antoine Roblot, Odette Piquet, Nicolas Bataille
Screenplay: Louis Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Cinematographer: Henri Raichi
Genre: Fantasy comedy
A brash and precocious ten-year-old (Catherine Demongeot) comes to Paris for a whirlwind weekend with her rakish uncle (Philippe Noiret); he and the viewer get more than they bargained for, however, in this anarchic comedy from Louis Malle, which rides roughshod over the City of Light. Based on a popular novel by Raymond Queneau that had been considered unadaptable, Malle’s audacious Zazie dans le métro, made with flair on the cusp of the French New Wave, is a bit of stream-of-consciousness slapstick, wall-to-wall with visual gags, editing tricks, and effects.
What I liked about this film
Paris as a playground for exploration. Where would you go first? On arriving at the Gare de l'Est, Zazie (having just arrived from the provinces) only wants to go on the métro. Probably not your first choice! But Zazie's dream is stymied by a métro strike so of course she has to travel in different ways. Here in Paris in 1960 we can explore the city via Zazie's antics like a fast-paced cartoon and with all the colour and life of the 60s (plenty of views of Paris you might never have seen before.)
Certainly this visual comedy is a treat for the eyes and also an exploration of surrealist comedy unlike anything else. Using film techniques, many of which seen for the first time at this period, editing and special effects this film is a riotous journey around the City of Light.
There's a lot to this film, some of which is difficult to grasp, but it is an immense cinematic achievement to bring Queneau's surrealist humour and linguistic games to the screen without ruining both! Ashley Naftule's great review discovers:
“Zazie was difficult because we were always trying to find some equivalent to what Queneau was doing with literature,” Malle wrote in Malle On Malle. “It was playing with literature and I thought it would be just as interesting to try to do the same thing with cinematic language.”
Don't expect to use Zazie as a reliable city guide though. Much like Netflix's 21st century Emily in Paris, which mangles all kinds of Parisian monuments in improbable journeys around the city, Zazie's Paris is a jumble. The difference is that Zazie's jumble is for surrealist comic effect and underscores the tourist-in-Paris-for-the-first-time experience along with many jokes featuring coach loads of tourists dressed in all kinds regional dress.
Due to the metro strike, the city is also teaming with cars. Visual references to the car's gradual encroachment on the city give you an idea of period of change within the city. It seems especially interesting too as Paris's current mayor would like to plan to drastically reduce the number of cars in the centre of the city to improve its air quality and create a healthier urban landscape. What goes around...
As the film scholar Ginette Vincendeau says in her essay on the film, 'The characters’ trajectories play havoc with the city’s topography: the Paris of Zazie dans le métro is a jumble of tourist attractions (the Eiffel Tower, the Place de la Concorde, the flea market), hallowed surrealist spots (the Passage Brady), and iconic cinematic locations (the banks of the Seine, the Pont de Bercy).' (Essay available at Criterion Collection, 2011) and most of these monuments are misnamed and misplaced. But this is absolutely part of the charm of the film!
With a 1960s spirit of adventure, craziness and absurdity this film is a charmer. From Zazie's dynamic childhood energy (reminds me a little of the Le petit Nicolas stories but with more caffeine) to the cast including Philippe Noiret bringing so much brilliance to this unusual film with the energy of Paris in the background. As Malle observed, “It’s something which I’ve observed over all these years: the world I’m looking at is never quite what it’s supposed to be. What was absolutely central to Zazie, something that I keep discovering and put into my films more and more, is the fact that people—adults especially— constantly say one thing and do the opposite. The basic lies of our lives.” And so it is that the adults in Zazie are unreliable and sometimes actually dangerous.
[TRIGGER WARNING - mention of themes of sexual abuse and paedophilia, violence against women - scroll until you see ***]
Zazie's nemesis is the combined figure of paedophile/pervert/policeman, which might not be what you were expecting! It reminded me of my first trip to Paris on a school trip and being well-briefed by our teachers to very firmly and clearly speak up should anyone try to molest us while on the métro. The sad reality of travelling as a young girl. We didn't have anything like Zazie's comic-strip armoury to help us! This tension of the comic-like chases add to the zany feel and madcap speed of much of the film.
The post-war re-assessment of the place of women in society and all the cultural shifts of the 1950s and 60s are the context for the difficulty today's audiences may have with these themes and the adultification of the ten-year-old character. I do not know why Malle made Zazie younger in the film than in the novel, but it makes this theme even harder to understand right now. The film scholar, Vincendeau, explains her theories in this context in her essay here, describing Zazie as a post-war enfant terrible in defying the conservative expectations of the position and power of women.
Through the comic-strip vioelnce-with-no-conseiquences zaniness, this film is suitable to watch despite the trigger warning. There is menace and absurdity.
A unique vision of Paris (I love looking for the architectural landscape of the city in 1960) and a completely remarkable film. It's a creative, funny and modern classic novel by Queneau, much like Joyce's Ulysses it has parallels to that level of linguistic wit. It's unlike anything else and so it has run straight into this week's Ciné Saturday French film of the week like Roadrunner.
For the no-holds-barred visual comedy, this film just can't be beaten, even if it is something of a cult classic. A pre-1968 Paris with humour, visual gags, surrealist slapstick and maybe, just maybe a trip on the métro.
Where to Find It
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Multi-format Criterion Collection (also available to stream on the Criterion Channel)
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Have you seen this film? Did you like it? Let me know what you thought by email: hello at francewhereyouare dot com or over on social media.
I love to talk cinema!
And when they're closed, I love to talk home cinema. 😉