Wow, this is a Malle film that came out of the blue for me. The most aesthetically “New Wave” (or at least most aesthetically variant) of his filmography, this is sort of like Jacques Tati + Jean Pierre Jeunet + Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.
Philippe Noiret (the great actor from some of my favorite films, Coup de Torchon in particular) plays Uncle Gabriel, who is charged with watching young Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) when her mother goes on vacation. Together, and alongside a cartoonish cast of characters, they traipse, run and chase about Paris.
There is a lot to talk about in Zazie, not least of all the color schema and art direction. Malle enlisted famous photographer and later-to-be famous filmmaker William Klein to head this department. The sets are filled with graffiti and wall art in bold colors and vertical lines. Much of it appears frequently throughout, as though (and this is likely the case) the art department was entirely mobile and just placed in any frame no matter where shooting was taking place. The resulting effect is sort of like Umbrellas of Cherbourg saturated Technicolor (though that film wouldn’t be until 4 years later) alongside abstract, ironic fine art. Klein is apparently also responsible for the decision to shoot using only two lenses: a telephoto and wide angle. The perspective – tightly framed with a shallow depth of field or garishly wide – skews the world in a grotesque view that is equally comparable with Zazie’s anarchic freedom, Gabriel’s alternative lifestyle and a Paris that is both crumbling (city strikes, recollections of the war) and rebuilding (a fear and fascination of machinery that Tati would bring to fuller fruition in his 1967 and 1971 masterpieces, Playtime and Trafic).
Zazie dans le Metro should be mandatory viewing for the cinematic editing tricks it plays. Malle utilizes 1960s trademarks (lots of jump cuts in here) and plenty of other playful technique. There’s fast and slow motion, reverse footage, rear projection, animated explosions and cuts to move location or to fake matches on action. Gabriel grabs onto a balloon and walks off the edge of the Eiffel Tower. A well-timed cut has him floating softly to the ground below. A conversation between Gabriel and Zazie features continuous pans and cuts that place them alternately around the table but never interrupt the flow of dialogue. A long chase scene between Zazie and a perverted, over-zealous cop moves fluidly around the city, throwing geographic truth to the wind, and preferring pacing and in-camera jokes to anything conventionally narrative.
Anarchy is definitely the word here. There’s no rest for characters or viewer in here, and Malle turns his film into long chase/dance sequence, culminating in a 10+ minute-long food and fist fight where everything and everyone is destroyed while Zazie, probably the most sane person in the entire film (and also the most skeptical) falls asleep face-first in her pasta. The jazzy score that accompanies the action – either cool jazzy or crazy jazzy – reinforces the freedom that is explicit throughout.
Malle’s film is not to be written off as a technical exercise. Any film dedicated to, and accepted by Charlie Chaplin is likely to have underlying meaning that reaches beyond the surface-scope. In the same way that the silent comedic master often disguised his tales of encroaching greed and dehumanization with an overwhelmingly human and funny approach, Malle masks his fear of a deteriorating society and fear of absurd lawlessness with a deceptively naive humor. As I mentioned before, I find Zazie to have more in common with Tati than Chaplin. There are parallels between Tati’s Hulot and Noiret’s Gabriel. Both bumble their way good-naturedly through a city-scape, often in the care of (in a nice reversal) a child. Cars literally play a major role and the commotion therein frequently adds to the soundtrack and creates a choreographed chaos that both harms and assists the main characters. Nonetheless, a spatial gag, as in the one(s) that occurs in the restaurant at the end, where a never-ending stream of waiters appear and the walls are ultimately flimsier than might be suggested is as much Gold Rush as anything else.