Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro is the funniest book ever written in, and about, the French language. When it came out in 1959, it “made the whole of France laugh,” Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who helped Louis Malle adapt it to the screen, recounted in a 2005 interview. A former member of the surrealists, Queneau was a respected poet, novelist, and critic with a particular bent for wordplay. With Zazie dans le métro, he turned linguistic experimentation into a comic masterpiece, and himself into a celebrity. Malle’s decision to turn the high-profile work into a film was both his good fortune and his bane. The story may sound simple enough: ten-year-old Zazie comes to Paris to spend a weekend with her odd uncle Gabriel, his mysterious wife, Albertine, and their eccentric friends and neighbors; she responds to the adults’ shenanigans with sardonic humor and pithily obscene comments, and crisscrosses the city against mounting chaos. But this sketch hardly begins to describe the work. How do you adapt a book that invents words, defies syntax and spelling, and irreverently mixes street slang, profanities, and philosophy? Indeed, this proved a challenge, and while the twenty-seven-year-old Malle rose to it with astonishing inventiveness, when the film came out in November 1960, it mystified critics and audiences alike and did considerably less well at the box office than his previous two works, Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (both 1958). Even though its madcap humor and creative cinematography gained it a cult following (a Paris cinema showed it one day a week for more than twenty years), even though Queneau declared himself “enchanted” and Charlie Chaplin was “impressed,” Zazie dans le métro was seen as a curiosity or, at best, a stylistic exercise. Yet to watch it today is to rediscover a gem—not just a technically advanced film, though it is that, but also a seminal one about Paris and a prescient account of a modern girl on the brink.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Zazie is an anomaly in a number of ways. Made at the time of the New Wave, it is not a New Wave film, not least because it is an adaptation of a famous book. (Malle allows himself a little in-joke by having characters mockingly exclaim at the beginning of the film, “It’s the New Wave!”) Malle keeps Queneau’s zany plot and characters and uses many of the book’s lines, but his method was to find, in the best style of the “Tradition of Quality” decried by François Truffaut, cinematic “equivalents to what Queneau was doing with literature.”
Malle aims to match the writer’s dynamiting of language and his surrealist humor with a cornucopia of tricks that look back to early cinema and forward to modernist filmmaking, including speeding up and slowing down the film, jump cuts, rapid editing, sliding backgrounds, abrupt changes in scale, and riotous splashes of color. This was only his third feature, and first color film, and was more experimental than anything he’d done before. Indeed, his experiments are occasionally too extreme, perhaps; the special effects at times follow one another so fast that they can’t all be taken in, and the comic effect is lost. For instance, the subtle play with the background in the scene where Zazie eats mussels in a restaurant was missed by audiences (“I thought people would notice and would laugh. But nobody did,” Malle lamented). Yet even if any adaptation of this work would have been “an inevitable failure,” in the words of André S. Labarthe, Malle should be credited for his daring experimentation. Here he was, planning a systematic use of jump cuts in the winter of 1959–60, before Breathless was released and five years ahead of Richard Lester’s playful The Knack . . . and How to Get It. The chaotic ending, in which a restaurant is comprehensively demolished around Zazie, anticipates the similar scene in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Malle’s pyrotechnics may now merge with other 1960s experiments in viewers’ minds, but Zazie dans le métro got there first. Equally significantly, it stands as a remarkable document of Paris, using the city, in pure New Wave fashion, as a playground for Zazie and Gabriel’s motley crew, and especially for the filmmaker. It is in this treatment of the city, too, that Malle’s true equivalent to Queneau’s surrealism lies.
Zazie and the Surrealist City
The film begins and ends at a railway station (the Gare de l’Est). This activates the trope of the provincial’s starry-eyed discovery of the metropolis, immediately undercut by Zazie’s wanting only to go underground—which in turn is sabotaged by the subway workers’ strike. Her visit triggers a mad journey across Paris in which the city of tourism collides with that of the Parisians. Landmarks are systematically misnamed and misplaced—the unremarkable church of Saint-Vincent de Paul is repeatedly mistaken for the Panthéon or the Invalides—tourists spill out of their coach comically done up in Breton folk dress or as “Gretchens.” The characters’ trajectories play havoc with the city’s topography: the Paris of Zazie dans le métro is a jumble of tourist attractions (the Eiffel Tower, the Place de la Concorde, the flea market), hallowed surrealist spots (the Passage Brady), and iconic cinematic locations (the banks of the Seine, the Pont de Bercy). The metro strike, which in the book is simply a running joke, here provides a perfect excuse to display the city clogged up with cars. Malle cleverly turns a source of visual humor, the Place de la Concorde filling up with colorful vehicles, into a comment on the growing encroachment of the car on city life, well before Godard’s Weekend and Tati’s Playtime and Trafic. Despite the zany visual effects and chaotic geography, the “reality effect” of location shooting means that we are still watching the Paris of 1960. Malle thus achieves the surrealists’ aim—as in the novels of André Breton and Louis Aragon—of making dream, fantasy, and eroticism arise from the everyday: the architecture of the Passage Brady, the shape of bridges and arcades, the objects in the flea market. The city is no mere decor but the raw material of the film’s aesthetic project.
The extended sequence on the Eiffel Tower condenses all these aspects. Skillful framing provides vertigo-inducing views of the characters as they appear to perch on the edge of the abyss, high above Paris; a long vertical tracking shot follows Zazie and the taxi driver Charles running down a spiral staircase seemingly in midair; Gabriel bellows a monologue, crisscrossing a platform while bumping into the “Bretons” and the “Gretchens”; suddenly, the top of the tower is a lighthouse, and a huge wave crashes over Gabriel and a “sea captain.” In every shot, the city, bathed in a glorious light, and the modernist architecture of the tower interact with each other. A tribute to René Clair’s 1925 film Paris qui dort, the sequence brilliantly combines reality and dream, poetry and farce, documentary and fiction. As Gabriel muses atop one of the tower’s elevators, “All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream . . .”
A 1960 Enfant Terrible
Zazie the film may be a dream, but when it comes to Zazie the character, the reality effect intrudes again. This is a comedy centered on a ten-year-old girl, but with a dark, absurdist tone and undercurrents of sexual awareness beyond her years. As Malle biographer Pierre Billard reports, in 1960, angry parents were seen dragging their offspring out of cinemas, realizing they were not exactly watching a “children’s film.” In Malle’s typology of child/adolescent characters, the precocious Zazie falls between the girl prostitute of Pretty Baby (1978) and the autobiographically inspired innocent boys of Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Au revoir les enfants (1987). Within the film itself, the state of her sexual knowledge is ambiguous: she doesn’t understand whether Gabriel—who works at night as a drag artist—is a “hormosessual” or not, but she thinks nothing of using obscene language (“Mon cul!”), pretending to be threatened with sexual abuse, or flatly stating to grown men that she is a fully formed woman. Part of this ambiguity comes from the fact that the film’s Zazie is three or four years younger than the book’s, a time gap that makes all the difference.
As well as lowering Zazie’s age, Malle significantly toned down the book’s startling jokes about child abuse. In Queneau’s novel (but not in the film), as Zazie’s mother hands her off to Gabriel, she recommends he watch over her, so that she isn’t “raped by the whole family,” to which Zazie replies, “Last time you arrived just in time, remember?” Similarly, jokes about Zazie and prostitution were deleted. Nevertheless, the sexual subtext remains, which makes it difficult to subscribe to the dominant interpretation, offered by Malle, among others, of Zazie as the embodiment of innocence perverted: “a child or adolescent suddenly exposed to the corruption of the adult world.” But nor is Zazie, like the heroine of Black Moon—Malle’s other, much more peculiar foray into surrealism and female sexual awakening, fifteen years later—the surrealist figure of the child-woman. As played by the delightfully impish Catherine Demongeot, Zazie is a child, with her gap-toothed smile, gamine haircut, and tomboyish clothes.
Zazie’s contradictions make more sense when seen in a wider context. France in the 1950s was going through a cultural revolution particularly evident in the status of women. Queneau’s book and Malle’s film are testimony to this in their choice of heroine. If neither writer nor filmmaker escapes the patriarchal stereotyping of women, the fact that their rebellious hero is female fits a broader pattern—and for Malle exemplifies both his long-standing interest in women and his characteristic insight into cultural change (we should not forget his documentary work, which he would continue throughout his career, alongside his fiction films). In a postwar context of gender realignment, after the trauma of the German occupation, young women in France came to the forefront of cultural life like never before: among others, singer Juliette Gréco, novelist Françoise Sagan, film star Brigitte Bardot. These female “enfants terribles,” as Susan Weiner describes them in her study of Frenchwomen and the mass media in the 1950s, successfully broke taboos, challenged the rules that had regulated women’s lives for so long, and noisily occupied the public sphere, all while still being shackled by the conservative mores of the time. Though decidedly younger, Zazie is just such an enfant terrible: she is fearless, answers back with insolence, stares at people and at the camera, and possesses wisdom—expressed in her asides on the grown-ups and her famous last line, about how in these two days she “got older.” In this light, the fact that Malle’s next film was with, and about, Bardot makes sense. The sexual jokes in Zazie dans le métro, seen through the prism of today’s sensitivity, can feel uncomfortable, and even inappropriate. Yet they also indirectly signal the prominent place of women who won’t be suppressed. The two sides of Zazie, the sexual being and the child, do not so much compose a traditional child-woman as reveal the paradoxes of the age.
Ginette Vincendeau is a professor of film studies at King’s College London. Her books include Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, La haine, and The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (with Peter Graham). She is currently writing a book about Brigitte Bardot.