Louis Malle, Part 1: Zazie dans le métro

(Last Updated On: April 8, 2015)

Even before I met Pip Starr, I made an attempt to acquaint myself with some of the great directors of foreign films—foreign to Americans, anyhow. Louis Malle (1932–1995) is an interesting case in point because he began as a French film director and later directed American films. I had seen a number of his films including Pretty Baby, but when I first discussed Malle with Pip, he told me about two films I had not heard of: Zazie dans le métro (1960) and Black Moon. The three films are quite different from each other and yet they each feature a young girl playing a leading role in the film. I will be reviewing the other two shortly.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) is a 10-year-old girl who is dropped off for a couple of days to stay with an uncle living in Paris. It is explained that Jeanne, the mother, does this every so often when she has a whirlwind romance with someone new. Here the girl is affectionately greeting her uncle, Gabriel.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (1)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (1)

One of the things she is looking forward to taking a ride on the Métro, the city’s rail line. She is disappointed to learn that it is shut down due to a worker’s strike.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (2)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (2)

As she is driven to her uncle’s flat, we get a clear picture of her impertinent and refreshing candor in dealing with the adults in her world. Gabriel’s wife Albertine prepares dinner and Zazie talks about becoming a schoolteacher. Why? Because, in her mischief, she wants the pleasure of driving each new class of students crazy!

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (3)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (3)

After going to bed, she is roused by a visit from the landlord who insists that Gabriel not keep that brat in his place.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (4)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (4)

After overhearing this, she does whatever she can to make trouble for him. In the morning, before her uncle gets up, she dresses and goes out on the town without an escort. The landlord notices this and chases her. She escapes by making a scene and telling the people who gather that he said some bad things to her so that the group mobs him.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (5)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (5)

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (6)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (6)

She goes back to the Métro entrance to find that it is still shut down. She bawls melodramatically until a man shows up with a sock puppet to cheer her up. Although he insists that he simply loves children, she is no fool. She calls him a dirty old man but, as you can see, she does so playfully and goes along with him anyway to the marketplace.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (7)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (7)

She cons him into buying her a pair of jeans and he treats her to lunch. Here we see her checking herself out in the mirror with her new acquisition.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (8)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (8)

After lunch, she abruptly runs off and the man chases after her. It is apparent by this point in the film that many of the scenes were shot by slowing the film stock to parody the fast motion of a silent slapstick film. In an interesting scene, she hides among a set of identically dressed mannequins to confuse the pursuer.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (9)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (9)

After a series of comical and melodramatic tactics, she laughs maniacally after making her final escape.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (10)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (10)

She puts on her new blue jeans before going out again with her uncle and his chauffeur, Charles. It appears that the film maker was using the jeans as a symbol of a Zazie’s growing up.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (11)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (11)

They begin at the Eiffel tower and as she and Charles are climbing down—they get momentarily separated from Gabriel—they have a frank but comical conversation about homosexuality, how some girls get married at 12 and why Charles isn’t married.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (12)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (12)

The film gets increasingly surreal as it progresses so, suffice it to say, Zazie is swept along in a series of adventures involving the antics and interactions between Madame Mouaque, a policeman and the rest of the characters.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (13)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (13)

The amusing irony is that by the time the Métro is running again, Zazie is so exhausted, she sleeps through the whole thing.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (14)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (14)

When her mother picks her up and asks her if anything happened, she simply answers “I got older.”

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (15)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (15)

The film is remarkable the way it deals with serious subjects in such a light-hearted way. Never does the viewer feel that Zazie is in any real danger. Somehow, she knows how to handle herself and whenever characters take themselves too seriously, they are made to appear foolish.

7 thoughts on “Louis Malle, Part 1: Zazie dans le métro

  1. Apparently Nabokov said, some time after the Kubrick film had been made, that the Catherine Demongeot in Zazie would have been his ideal Lolita, though he had at the time approved of Sue Lyon.

    It would have made for a different and, in my opinion, better film.

  2. This is a fantastically quirky film. I’ve seen it a few times over the years, though I’ve never read the book. While Louis Malle was a master craftsman, his work could be hit-or-miss at times. “Zazie dans le Métro” is an early work that showcases his budding talents, while “Pretty Baby” illustrates his potential for brilliance. “Black Moon” is filled bizarre characters and a strange setting. I found it interesting but weird. Some of his work, such as “Lacombe, Lucien” and “Murmur of the Heart”, are prime examples of a director at the peak of his powers. I am certainly a big fan of Malle’s work. Thanks for sharing this film with others who may not be familiar with it. It’s worthy of a view.

    • Thank you. I have seen many of his films everywhere from ‘Elevator to the Gallows’ to ‘Damage’. Another film I will be mentioning in my ‘Black Moon’ post is ‘Au revoir les enfants’ and is probably the most autobiographical of his “child” films. I’ll save the rest of my comments for the other two upcoming posts. -Ron

  3. I have not seen the film, but I have the original French book by Raymond Queneau, published by folio, with the cover showing Catherine Demongeot laughing, similarly to your photo 10:
    http://www.decitre.fr/media/catalog/product/9/7/8/2/0/7/0/3/9782070364022FS.gif
    Probably many of the puns and colloquial expressions of the book are lost in the film, even more in the English version.
    The first word is “Doukipudonktan” in the mouth of Gabriel, which I will translate as “Werfromdastinksomuch”.
    Zazie always uses foul language, and she has a vicious behaviour: whenever a man hinders her, she screams that he is a “satyr” in order to rouse the mob against him. She claims that her father tried to rape her, hence her mother brutally killed him, and the crowd applauded her in court, leading to her acquittal. Sexual assault on little girls is a recurrent theme of conversation around her.
    Gabriel claims to be a night warden, but he works as a travestite dancer in a nightclub. Zazie asks him if he is “hormosessual”.
    The “dirty old man” is in fact a chameleon-man, he disguises himself as a policeman, and it is him, unrecognized, who accompanies Zazie and the widow Mouaque on their search for Gabriel who accompanies tourists in their coach.
    The end of the book suddenly becomes weird, with a scene of a terrorist attack or fascist coup: the false policeman arrives accompanied with other armed men, and they slaughter all people in sight; fortunately, Gabriel, the sleeping Zazie and their friends escape with the help of a waiter, who leads them through an underground passage. I doubt that the scene has been transposed in the film.
    To me, this scene is a form of premonition, that vulgar gossip about sexual deviance (homosexuality and paedophilia) is a prelude to hatred, violence and fascist terrorism.

    • Yes, a lot of detail is lost in the film, but I commend Malle on capturing the frenetic pace of the story, especially toward the end. Gabriel does claim to be a night watchman for Zazie’s sake, but no one seems to really care about his odd occupation–least of which, Zazie. She mentions it as a matter of course later in the film.

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