in search of the underground
Louis Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (screenplay, based on the fiction Raymond Queneau), Louis Malle (director) Zazie dans de métro (Zazie in the Metro) / 1960
Like the “naughty” boys of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduit, the bad-behaving Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) begins the story with a train ride on her way to her uncle’s place in Paris. Her mother has dumped on the perfume dabbing, female impersonator Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) so that she might have a short time her new lover, and the girl, well aware of the situation, clearly intends to “misbehave.” Zazie’s major desire is ride the Metro, which is on strike and closed during the girl’s visit.
Accordingly, Malle, using Queneau’s story, sets up a situation in which youth, represented by Zazie, knowing who they are, seek out a world of the underground—a world below and apart from the normalcy of city life—while the adults, pure pretenders, have no idea who they are or even where they are. The film begins, in fact, with Gabriel noting—in the slang, neologisms, and argot that dominate this work—that something stinks. While driving the girl to his house, he points out, time and again, famous Paris sites which are not what he names them, as if he has never even visited the city in which he resides.
His beautiful wife, Albertine (Carla Marlier), seems at first almost saintly, but we soon perceive her as being so placid and cold—so unlike her loud and foppish husband. She seems to be hiding something, and later in the film undergoes her own kind of transgender transformation. Others, such as the seeming pedophile Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are even stranger. But none of them are up to the bad-girl tactics of the young rapscallion Zazie.
Symbolically representing a body in action, Zazie is filled with one-liners, most famously “My ass!” Her only major question is whether or not her uncle is a “hormossuel,” which, despite his profession, is never truly answered; but then nobody is who he or she claims to be—except Zazie, of course. And it precisely what she is, a liberated youth, that the others so desperately desire. Perhaps Zazie is absolutely right in her desire a life apart.
As the various chases and Gabriel’s performance come together, everyone and everything explodes into a brutal brawl. But by that time Zazie, tuckered out, has fallen asleep and misses the brouhaha. As critic Leo Goldsmith expresses it: “After fomenting a revolution, she misses the war.” The next morning she is whisked away by her now sexually satiated mother just as the labor strike ends, and the Metro opens up its gates.
Los Angeles, February 25, 2013
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2013).