Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zazie dans le Metro (Zazie in the Metro)

Directed by Louis Malle

Uncle Gabriel: Holifart whatastink!

In a crowded Paris train station, an uncle eagerly awaits the arrival of a train. Said train will be bringing his niece, Zazie, to spend some time with him. He sniffs his nose and says, “Holifart whatastink.” He begins to mock the regular Parisians surrounding him. But his complaints are short lived, as the train arrives and deposits a young girl with short black hair, a vibrant red shirt, and a long grey skirt. She approaches him and says, “I’m Zazie. You my unc?” He lovingly replies, “Me in person. I’m your unc.” As they leave the leave the station, they approach a cab full of people. Zazie walks up to it, tests the door handle, and when it breaks off she matter-of-factly says, “What a crummy old heap.” But pay close attention to its delivery. She doesn’t complain like a spoiled toddler. Instead she speaks as a seasoned cynic. Such is the character of the titular character in Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro (1960).

As you may have noticed, the characters all speak in bizarre slang. This is a far cry from the tight, proper French that is spoken in other French movies. But that is the point. This is a movie of slang talking, risk taking, convention breaking joy. Before the film ends, Zazie will escape from her uncle, raise hell all over Paris, and cause general mayhem and panic. She is the living embodiment of uncontrolled chaos, and she bounces around the city submerged in uncontainable joy.

At its center, Zazie dans le Metro follows Zazie on her quest to ride the Paris metro. Unfortunately, she discovers that the subway workers are on strike. So she must settle with traveling around Paris in cars, taxis, and her own two feet. The story doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is just a tightly connected series of vignettes that follow Zazie throughout the city. What she discovers is a Paris unlike any other that we have seen in the cinema. As she travels through the market, she passes delightful eccentrics, pushy salesmen, and other general oddities. A group of musicians play without any instruments. Servants dutifully follow their masters while holding ancient sculptures. And the shopkeepers are happy to sell you anything, especially their large supply of goods taken from the United States Army. Throughout the rest of the city, people hustle and bustle at an incredible speed. The city is more alive than it has ever been.

At times she travels with her uncle. They go to the Eiffel Tower where he is accosted by several blond-haired women who swoon over the fact that he is an artist. To escape, he climbs on top of the elevator that takes visitors to the top of the Tower. He then gets out and begins to climb of the railing, up and up into the sky. The women continue to follow him for the rest of the movie, pouncing and stealing him away. All the while Zazie travels up to the top where she can view her domain. The photography of the Eiffel Tower is some of the best ever recorded in the cinema. One wonders how they were able to get certain shots without risking the lives of the actors and cameramen. But that brings me to the next point about this film, the uncontrollable ingenuity of the cameramen and director.

Just like Zazie, this film plays by its own rules. Much of this goes to the credit of the director, Louis Malle. He got his start working with Jacques Cousteau as a cameraman and with Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (1956). With the release of his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958), the world received into its fold a visionary new director. Even though his work didn’t always follow the ideals of the auteur theorists, he is frequently associated with the French New Wave. A period of time starting from the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, the French New Wave was comprised of a group of daring iconoclasts who rejected conventional film making and experimented with new methods of editing, visual construction, and narrative. They believed in the auteur theory, which states that a film is the summation of the director’s personal creative vision. As a director, Malle created a plethora of personal and penetrating films. His work stretched from many different genres, but a constant attribute of his work, especially his earlier work, is that they were subdued and reflective. But here in Zazie dans le Metro, his third film, we see an uncharacteristic energy and spirit of innovation.

Louis Malle

Take one scene inside the building where Gabriel and Zazie stay when they first arrive. The landlord greets them only to receive an unbelievable wave of cursing from Zazie. Stunned, he walks next to a bar where a couple of lovers are whispering sweet nothings and a pair of workers toil away. Suddenly, he starts to scream.

Goddammit to hell! I won’t stand for a little bitch who spouts obscenities like that! She’ll corrupt the neighborhood!

Now, while many would focus on the inherent irony in this scene, I am fascinated by the way that the landlord moves. He appears in different places all over the room in mid-sentence. It would appear to be a jump cut, but behold, the couple and the pair of workers in the background never stop moving. Nor are their movements interrupted or choppy. How did the landlord jump cut across the screen while the rest of the characters stayed in the same place? I would like to propose a theory. I think that it was all one long shot. At certain points I can imagine Malle yelling, “Cut!” Then everybody froze for a couple seconds. The landlord would then sprint across the room to his next position whereupon Malle would yell, “Action!” Then the actors would continue moving as if nothing had happened as the landlord continued his line. That is how I propose this scene was filmed. At least, that is how I would try to reconstruct it.

But understand, this is only one example. In actuality, it is one of the movies more unimpressive effects. Besides it only lasts for a couple of seconds. All throughout the movie, people are jump cutted in and out of the frame, the footage is sped up or slowed down, characters stand still while the set is manually changed around them mid-scene, and the audience is accosted by a multitude of other camera tricks, editing techniques, and rudimentary special effects. During a chase scene where Zazie is pursued throughout Paris, the film suddenly adopts Looney Tunes logic. At one point, Zazie is being pursued down an alley. Suddenly, she puts up her hand. She walks up to a camera that has been set up in the middle of the street. Her pursuer stops to pose for a photograph. After Zazie takes it, she gives him the photo, they admire it, and then the chase continues as if nothing happened. Later she tricks him with bombs that blow up, leaving his face pitch black instead of hurting him. All of this madness is interspersed with a phenomenal close-up of Zazie’s face as she laughs at the insanity of it all. Actress Catherine Demongeot creates one of the great children’s characters in the movies. Her hair, clothes, and lines have all become iconic. But at the core, she is a delightful little hellion who steals our hearts away.

The iconic laughing shot.

It’s rare to find such a joyful, entertaining film. For those who want to study the French New Wave, I would recommend this as the first one that you watch. It is much more kinetic than its brethren and much more exciting. That’s not to say that slow and deliberately-paced films are inferior. It’s just that Zazie dans le Metro is such an infectiously delightful film that I shudder to think what would happen if it was remade as a philosophic treatise. That’s not to say that some haven’t tried. While researching this movie before I wrote this article, I stumbled across a review written by Alice Burgin that says that it is a philosophical film with a clearly stated agenda. Apparently, the characters of Zazie and Uncle Gabriel represent the bourgeoisie and the lower classes and Zazie’s desire to see the city from the metro, the lowest and most basic form of transportation, is a statement on Parisian culture. While I respect Burgin’s work, and I recommend everyone to read it, I disagree. Maybe Malle did intend for this to be a serious class study. But I doubt it. I feel that Burgin missed the point. This isn’t a movie of philosophies. It is a workout of cinematic technique, a tribute to the auteur theory, and a desire to create the biggest mess possible. Go out and find this movie. I say with complete confidence and total seriousness that Zazie dans le Metro is one of the greatest hidden treasures of French cinema.

Here is a link to Alice Burgin’s article:



  1. I could totally see a Marxist interpretation based on the summary you've given, but I think you've got something more in the idea of "mess" for the sake of mess.

  2. Exactly. There may be some weight to political interpretations of this movie. But I think that they are missing the point. This film is more of a celebration of film technique and childhood.

  3. Could anyone explain the symbolism of the subway to me? Zazie initially wants a ride (or more) by subway. Unluckily, the subway workers are on strike all throughout the movie. In the end, however, the strike is over. When Zazie leaves for her native place she is asked: "Did you go by the subway?" - "No." - "Then what did you do?"- "I aged", she says.