Zazie dans le métro (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 6.28.2011)
Of Louis Malle’s early films, Zazie dans le métro is the most emblematic of the French New Wave and arguably the director's most influential film. Released in 1960, Malle’s third film constantly calls attention to its technique, even having a character ponder the film's place in the New Wave at one point. Based upon veteran surrealist Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel, Zazie dans le métro follows ten-year-old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) during a visit to Paris. While her mother (Odette Piquet) is busy cavorting with her latest boyfriend, Zazie stays with her female impersonator uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret). Zazie is opinionated and foul-mouthed, qualities which reportedly led angry French parents, expecting to see a children’s film, to drag their tykes from theatres. Zazie causes chaos throughout, ranging from a massive traffic jam to a lengthy slapstick fight in a restaurant.
Malle’s style matches the girl’s frenetic energy and anarchic spirit with constant camera movement, mixing slow, normal and fast motion with dozens of other techniques. This style was clearly an influence on Richard Lester's A Hard Day’s Night and Jacques Tati's Play Time. Malle borrows heavily from silent film comedy -- in a 1960 television interview, he dedicates the film to Charlie Chaplin -- and American animation. The color scheme, created in part by American photographer and avant-garde filmmaker William Klein (in his role as visual consultant) approximates the look of cartoons with vibrant oranges, yellows and reds, as well as muted blues and greens. This use of color, beautifully captured on this Blu-ray, is the film’s most distinctive achievement.
In an April 2011 audio interview, Klein discusses the film’s pop art background. In Le Paris de Zazie, assistant director Philippe Collin takes us to some of the film’s settings as they appeared in 2005 (interestingly, both Klein and Collin take credit for the borrowings from Tom and Jerry cartoons). Jean-Paul Rappeneau -- who co-wrote Zazie dans le métro with Malle -- talks about the director's visual equivalents for Queneau’s unique style. Archival television interviews with Demongeot, her parents and a stiff, nervous Queneau are interesting, but add little to one's understanding of the film.
In an interview with Malle, the too solemn director describes the film’s “terrible vision of modern life.” The interviewer says that this is frightening him, reminding Malle that Zazie is a comedy, after all. Finally, a pamphlet by Ginette Vincendeau, author of a terrific Jean-Pierre Melville biography, provides more useful background. -- Michael Adams