Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
June 28th, 2011

Louis Malle is an interesting name in the annals of cinematic history. Best known for films like AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS or ATLANTIC CITY, the French auteur also  spent time doing a documentary mini-series in India, and even a series of documentaries here stateside. Toss in a few experimental films like BLACK MOON and this review’s topic ZAZIE DANS LE METRO, and you have a filmography that is as schizophrenic as the style of the man behind the camera.

A perfect example of this split is the aforementioned ZAZIE DANS LE METRO. Based on a novel from writer Raymond Queneau, the film tells the story of Zazie, who stays for two days in the city of light, Paris, with her uncle Gabriel. However, no one is quite ready for the whirlwind that is Zazie, and for the run of the film, the viewer is accosted by the precocious young woman’s lively energy, and some of the most inventive and awe-inspiring filmmaking that France had to offer in this time, the start of the French New Wave.

Released the same year as a film like BREATHLESS, ZAZIE is a visual masterpiece. Where that Godard classic was shot in striking black and white, this film’s color palette is so full of life and energy, that each frame, experimental filmmaking or not, looks remarkable. Very much inspired by films from the likes of Chaplin, it comes as no shock that that iconic silent star fell in love with the film after seeing it, as it shares much of the filmmaking style and slapstick comedic sensibilities that Chaplin made the comedic norm.

The real star of this film is Malle himself. Easily one of his most inventive films, ZAZIE may lack the dark and brooding aesthetic that makes something like BLACK MOON so brilliant or his meditative, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, sense of style, but it more than makes up for it in sheer brash beauty. Using various styles of effects, the film is wholly unlike anything that you’ll find from this era. Closely resembling the films of someone like Michel Gondry, one can clearly see that this film played a direct inspiration on that SCIENCE OF SLEEP director, particularly in his early films. Malle has a childlike sense of wonderment and sense of imagination that. as the film begins to come to a close, the sense of melancholy, summed up in the line that Zazie utters directly into the camera at the end - “I got older" - is truly wonderful.

Catherine Demongeot is a revelation here as our titular lead, giving a performance both far beyond her years, and bred wholly in those very years. Demongeot infuses Zazie with a sense of charm that allows a character that one could find a bit annoying, to be absolutely endearing. Very much a French New Wave style film performance-wise, there is a strong feeling of angst in Demongeot’s eyes, that really feeds into the film’s free-wheeling, rule-breaking style.  Philippe Noiret is really enjoyable here as her loveable and dapper (drag queen) Uncle Gabriel, whose voice and pattern of speech is just as entertaining as the film itself. The supporting cast really holds up the film as well, including great performances from Hubert Deschamps, Carla Marlier, and Vittorio Caprioli, who all really have a wonderful sense of comedic timing and physicality, giving a lot back to this film.

Based on an oft-called “unfilmable novel,” ZAZIE is a bizarrely anarchic gem of a New Wave masterpiece. Malle himself described the film as a commentary on cinema, which is very much seen within the machinations of this film.  Also a film inspired by youth, ZAZIE is oddly melancholy. With each adult member of this film accounting for nothing more than a man or woman in suspended adolescence, you begin to discover that those with their heads on the tightest are truly those of the younger set. Zazie is far and away the film’s most mature character, making the last line she utters, one of the most thematically interesting bits of the entire film. Toss in the various cinematic tricks that the otherwise meditative Malle implements and you have a film that is both inspired by youth, and also embodies and comments on it.

As far as a Blu-ray release goes, this one is yet another top-notch release from Criterion. The visuals really shine in HD, as the neon, almost A WOMAN IS A WOMAN-like color palette thrives in 1080p. The audio is just as good, particularly the film’s use of effects and music. Just a wonderful audio-visual combination that looks and sounds wonderful thanks to this restoration and transfer. There are also a cavalcade of really interesting and insightful interviews with the likes of Queneau, Demongeot, writer Jean-Paul Rappeneau and, the most intriguing interview, one with Malle himself. For fans of the film’s art style, William Klein (the film’s artistic consultant and a brilliant filmmaker in his own right) has a brief chat on this disc, and there is even a really solid documentary piece entitled LE PARIS DE ZAZIE, that gives us a look at the making of the film, and its locales. Toss in a trailer and you have yet another great disc from Criterion.

Overall, this is a film that may have a title that doesn’t seem appealing to most, but is absolutely one of the most accessible films from one of the film world’s most unsung filmmaker’s filmographies. Featuring top-notch comedic performances all around, ZAZIE DANS LE METRO is a film vibrantly full of life that makes the most of its youthful bent. Both inspired by and embodying youth, ZAZIE is a comedic masterpiece of the highest regard. Definitely don’t miss this sucker.

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