Zazie, you're so darned adorable, you even make getting picked up by Aqualung look like a lark.
"Zazie dans le métro" (1960) is quite the contradiction, a zany comedy about a gap-toothed ten year old country girl having fun on a trip to Paris that is also filled with dark sexual innuendo. "Zazie" was a monumentally popular book by surrealist author Raymond Queneau that was reported to make "the whole of France laugh." With its elaborate wordplay and physics-defying plot it was considered impossible to adapt which is what attracted a young Turk named Louis Malle (27 at the time) to tackle the project.
Zazie's mother brings her to Paris by train to stay with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) who will wind up serving as a mostly helpless hanger-on as the precocious girl makes Paris her personal playground. According to Ginette Vincendeau in the essay that accompanies this Criterion release, when mom hands off her girl in the book, she tells Gabriel it's to make sure Zazie doesn't get "raped by the whole family." Hilarious. No wonder it made the whole country laugh. OK, so it's impossible to judge without context and the Zazie of the book is several years older than Malle's version, but it's fair to say that the director had a challenge on his hands.
The line is dropped from the film, but it still features its share of queasy moments. In one scene, Zazie wanders alone through the city and is picked up by a creepy man (Vittorio Capriolli) who may or may not be a cop. Zazie's not clueless and even jokes about the man's ambiguous intentions, but it doesn't stop her from taking advantage of the situation to get a free meal. While shucking a plate of mussels, she relates a story we only partially hear about her father's attempt to molest her, and her mother's response: killing dad with an axe. Hilarious.
Ick factor aside, Zazie remains a wide-eyed mostly-innocent gawker who is thrilled by the sophisticated sites the City of Lights offers a girl from the sticks. She has many a whacky adventure while knocking around Paris with a host of obedient adults (even the potentially threatening ones) abetting her play. She doesn't get to play on the metro because it's closed for a strike but she rides the streets and zips up and down the Eiffel Tower with a hop and a skip. Malle responded to the book's unorthodox structure by using just about every trick in the cinematic bag, and the final product plays like a live action cartoon that combines elements of the Keystone Cops, Chaplin, and Looney Tunes. Think "Kung Fu Hustle" but in pre-CGI days with a series of practical effects that are alternately (or simultaneously) dazzling and irritating. The film runs in slow motion or is sped up, characters appear and disappear, people survive great falls, and a pepper spray of visual sight gags keep the viewer constantly disoriented.
Malle also had to deal with the book's elaborate wordplay and it's impossible for a non-French speaker (comme moi) to get any real sense of it, and it is no doubt a challenge for subtitlers to convey the sense of whimsy. Zazie learns that her uncle (who works as a female impersonator) is a "homosessual." She has no idea what that means, but senses instinctively that it's one reason why Gabriel is a safety net for her.
Zazie is played by Catherine Demongeot who was not quite ten at the time of the production. With her crooked teeth and bobbed haircut, she is as cute as a button, which enables her to spout Zazie's foul-mouthed dialogue while still looking sweet as could be. It was a tough role because the book's popularity brought with it tremendous expectations (like Daniel Radcliffe taking on the Harry Potter mantle) but she seems to have handled it with grace.
I don't know if "Zazie" is all that funny, or if the humor simply doesn't translate (in-jokes about tourist-y locations in Paris don't play if you don't know them) but Malle's sheer bravado, strongly influenced by the art direction of photographer-filmmaker William Klein, keeps it compelling. It was only Malle's third film and served as a major departure from the much heavier "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958) and "The Lovers" (1958). It was the first notice Malle gave that he was a filmmaker who couldn't be easily pigeonholed, capable of shifting into just about any gear he needed for each project.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. For a film that makes such expressive non-naturalistic use of color, it's a little disappointing that the color palette here is fairly drab. You can tell from the opening shot of rolling train tracks that the source print (a restoration but not, it seems, an extensive one) for his high-def transfer isn't the greatest. The grassy hillside looks dull green and the image has a slightly faded quality to it. There are moments when the film looks brighter but there's really no point at which you would say the colors pop. The level of detail is good, but below average for a Criterion offering. I don't have the simultaneous SD release by Criterion as a point of comparison but for high-def this isn't a particularly sharp or vibrant picture.
The linear PCM 1.0 soundtrack isn't particularly dynamic but it's clean. There isn't really a whole lot to say about this. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Criterion has packed in quite a few short extras here, mostly interviews.
In a brief interview (5 min.) Louis Malle talks about the film just before its release, encouraging viewers to see it as frightening as well as humorous. This is an excerpt from the program "JT 19h15" and originally aired on Oct 26, 1960.
An interview with little Catherine Demongeot (8 min.) is downright odd. The interviewer is obsessed with finding out whether the young star has been damaged by playing the controversial character and keeps annoying the hell out of her (and her parents) with aggressive questions. This is an excerpt from "Cinq colonnes à la une" and originally aired on March 4, 1960.
The two most interesting interviews in the set are with the novel's author Raymond Queneau, the first from "Lectures pour tous" (Feb 4, 1959, 9 min.) and the second from "En français dans la texte" (March 24, 1961, 6 min.) The writer is somewhat evasive in both interviews but offers insight into both his writing and what he thinks of the book's reception.
We also get audio only interviews with co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (10 min.) and "Zazie" art consultant William Klein (13 min, April 2011).
The only non-interview on the disc is "Le Paris de Zazie" (15 min.), a 2005 documentary by Philippe Collin, Malle's assistant director. Collin discusses some of the Paris locations featured in the movie.
An Original Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the collection.
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau which goes into great depth about the film – this is one of the better Criterion essays in a while.
Criterion has decided to release Louis Malle's two nuttiest film at the same time, "Zazie" and "Black Moon." Both are trippy experiments and of the two I prefer "Black Moon," but "Zazie" still has its charms, both from its impish child star and the director's feats of visual derring-do. Criterion has loaded the disc with extras though just about all of them are short interviews which leaves a bit to be desired as far as analysis of the film. The high-def transfer doesn't really showcase the strengths of high-def all that much so if you're deciding between the Blu-Ray ($39.95 retail) and SD ($29.95 retail - which I haven't seen to compare) you might want to take that into consideration.