Monday, February 25, 2013

Louis Malle | Zazie dans de métro (Zazie in the Metro)

in search of the underground
by Douglas Messerli
Louis Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel Raymond Queneau) (screenplay), 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 with a train ride, she, on her way to her uncle’s place in Paris. Her mother has dumped on the perfume dabbling, female impersonator Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) so that she might have 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 down and away from the “ordinarily” 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, 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 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—that she seems to be hiding something, and later in the film, undergoes her own kind of transgender transformation. Others, such as the seeming pedophile Trouscaaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are even stranger. But none of them are up to the bad girl tactics of the young rapscallion Zazie.

      Once Zazie escapes her uncle’s environs, there really is no plot as Malle’s film turns into a kind of comic cops and robbers chase—reminding one at times, in its cinematic splices, cuts, and photographic impositions of the Beatles’ movies, scenes out of the Monty Python series and, of course, Godard’s Breathless. Malle’s film, unlike any movie he made after, literally takes one’s breath away as Zazie runs wild in a world anyone and everyone is on the make, including a sex-starved older woman, Madame Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and a half-busload of young German tourists who are desperate get their hands on Gabriel.

       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 seek. Perhaps Zazie and others like her are absolutely right to 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 formenting 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.

February 25, 2013

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