Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro takes Raymond Queneau's novel—the sort generally considered "unfilmable" and makes a film so cinematic as to appear sui generis. Jazzy and daring, Malle's live-action cartoon both anticipates and transcends sixties camp, making a full-bore attack on realism while also scarily commenting on the world it caricatures.
Ostensibly, the film tells of the Parisian adventure of ten-year-old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), dropped with her Uncle Gabriel (the great Philippe Noiret) so her mother (Odette Piquet) can abscond with her lover for the weekend. The setup would seem to promise something a standard-issue coming-of-age tale in which the girl awakens to the wonder of the city and learns life lessons. The film's brilliant punchline puts the lie to all that, and the journey to that moment is all. For starters, Zazie arrives in Paris already wholly self-possessed; beyond precocious, Zazie is a whirling-dervish life force that will not be contained or "handled." Uncle Gabriel turns out to be out of his depth, especially when it comes to fending off curious-kid questions regarding "hormosessual"ity and his job as a drag queen (playful malapropisms are a distinguishing feature of both novel and film).
Since Queneau's novel was a deconstruction of the verbal and the literary, Malle made his film a deconstrucion of the audio-visual and the cinematic. And not only does the pace never let up; it accelerates, partly through use of sped-up film and trick jump cuts. Artistic consultant William Klein contributed to the film's vibrant, off-kilter color scheme and flashes of street art, while cinematographer Henri Raichi makes an immediate impression with the expansive location photography. Malle actively draws attention to the settings, making jokes (including purposely distorted geography) about the relationships of people to their city. An elaborate sequence at the Eiffel Tower shows off Malle's silent-era-style film trickery, with seemingly dangerous shots that will never be repeated without the use of CGI. In one audacious episode, a pedophile (Vittorio Capriolli) chases Zazie around town, Zazie taking on the role of Road Runner to his Wile E. Coyote. For good measure, Malle takes a merry jab at the "New Wave" of cinema in which he played a part.
Malle and co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau insistently explore the notion that identity in the modern world is mutable and tortured, whether it's the kid perched between innocence and experience; Gabriel's ever-deferential wife (Carla Marlier), redefined by marriage and hemmed in by her femininity; her husband, free to cross-dress on stage but presumably not to live freely or even discuss his sexual identity; or that pedophile—also a salesman, cop, and train conductor—whose ever-shifting identity destabilizes his existence and complicates any effort to be happy. The increasingly high-strung absurdism becomes increasingly difficult to relax and enjoy, culminating in a comic climax that ups the ante from the lame pie fights of so many self-consciously wacky comedies: as the characters go after each other, they take apart their world. It's the ugly intersection of childhood and adulthood: immaturity and a lack of self-control meet darkened hearts and destructive power. After coming face to face with fascism, even the steadfastly self-possessed Zazie must drily admit that she has, inevitably, changed.
Criterion does a bang-up job in bringing Zazie dans le métro to Blu-ray. Color is of primary (!) importance to Malle's film, and Criterion gets the loudly saturated tones just right here. Detail and texture are also boffo, with the hi-def presentation standing head and shoulders over standard def in every regard without ever sacrificing the picture's film-like appearance. The PCM 1.0 audio mix has the canned quality one should expect of this film, which relies on post-production looping: it's a clear, clean reproduction of the film's original audio.
Bonus features begin with "Louis Malle" (4:54, HD), an interesting interview clip from a 1960 episode of the French news program JT 19h15.
Equally interesting, for very different reasons, is "Catherine Demongeot" (7:39, HD), a 1960 clip from French television program Cinq colonnes a la une in which Demongeot and her parents separately submit to questioning. The reporters' agenda is deafening, and they push to make a point to the bemusement of their interview subjects.
A Raymond Queneau section comprises 1959 and 1961 interviews with the author of the film's source novel: "Lectures pour tous" (9:20, HD) and "En Francais dans le texte" (5:52, HD).
"Le Paris de Zazie" (14:57, HD) is an essential stop amongst the bonus features, with assistant director Philippe Collin touring the film's Paris locations, reminisicing about the production, and reflecting on the film.
"Jean-Paul Rappeneau" (10:00, HD) allows writer-director Jean-Paul Rappeneau to discuss his collaborations with Malle, including their work on the script for Zazie.
The 2011 audio interview "William Klein" gets the artist (and writer-director) on the record about his contribution to the film's visual style.
Rounding out the disc is the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (2:15, HD). Also included in the set is an eighteen-page booklet containing color photos, chapter listing, credits, tech specs, and Prof. Ginette Vincendeau's essay "Girl Trouble."
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