It’s the rare Jean Gabin film for me where he’s not the main draw. His major period, which would begin 2 years after Zouzou with Renoir’s The Lower Depths in 1936, all the way through his final films in the 1970s, is littered with major hits. But in Marc Allegret’s Zouzou, it’s Josephine Baker that demands all the attention. Her filmography is about 1/9 the size of Gabin’s, but this vehicle (advertised as “Baker Talks”!) made her more the star than she already was.
The plot is simple, though it doesn’t follow all of the regular structure of a typical Hollywood backstage musical. Baker is Zouzou and Gabin is Jean. Growing up in a carnival atmosphere as part of the “freak show” (where freak implies interracial brother and sister), they eventually move to Paris where Jean gets a job as an electrician at a local theater. Zouzou realizes her love for him is more than sisterly, but he, in standard Gabin tough-guy fashion, is either ignorant of her affection or just doesn’t return it. Zouzou is accidentally discovered by the theater producers and at the same time, Jean is wrongly accused of murder.
With its expressionist lighting – particularly a scene at a bar and laundromat – that anticipates the noir-Poetic Realist hybrid of Carne and Renoir, Zouzou is a standout cinematically and narratively. Director Allegret uses some bold match cuts, elaborate blocking, and montage-driven cross-cuts to stage his action. One particular moment, where Allegret cuts between Zouzou singing in the laundromat where she works and the current star of the musical Barbara (Ill Meery) singing the same song on-stage is particularly effective, demonstrating how place can negatively affect passion (ie performance) and anticipating Zouzou’s inevitable rise to stardom (as if the title weren’t enough of a hint).
There’s more to Allegret’s film than simple wish-fulfillment. Counter to your 42nd Streets and Golddiggers of 1933s, the musical numbers in this film solve very little (if anything), and are instead showpieces only. Zouzou’s ultimate number – a sultry “Haiti” which is at once nostalgic of anything-but-Paris and emblematic of the whimsy and fantasy of that city – rivals a Hayworth or Dietrich in its star-making moment. Sitting inside a huge cage on the stage (the cage a nod to the birds Zouzou frees from their cages earlier in the film) she sings, scantily clad, about unrequited love and a desire for a lost land. Though she gets the fame here, she doesn’t get the guy, and sing as she might, the film seems to indicate, she’ll still be a caged bird on display in Paris rather than a free bird in Manila or Haiti.
So is this pro or anti-Paris? That’s not really at issue. Instead, it’s pro-Baker in that she is the star, the equal of the other characters and superior performer, and a tragic figure in the Greek mold. But there’s less far weight here than anything that Homer penned – Zouzou’s love is naive, innocent, incestual, and almost absurd. It’s a love that could be based on the fantastical notions espoused in the very musicals that this film at once works with and against. This is a love that says “love is saying, not doing,” which eventually makes the tragedy more about Zouzou’s metaphorical lack of freedom than her jilted passion.
The match cuts and time compressions that Allegret uses here – from a toy ship to a real ship; from Jean in jail to Jean in Paris; from Zouzou singing to Barbara singing; from a poster of Barbara to a poster of Zouzou – all imply a change for each character (wish fulfillment), but remains male-dominated. It is Jean whose wishes are fulfilled. He gets to ride a ship, go to Paris, and leave with the woman he loves. Each of these moments is implied via the match cut/time compression. It’s Zouzou whose wishes are only partially fulfilled, where the match cuts surrounding her character are more to move to the obligatory musical number than to solve anything narratively.
Sly nods to Baker’s infamous “banana dance,” a camera that tends to introduce her via reflection when she is “performing”, and costuming that gets gradually more Parisian as the film progresses, keep Zouzou framed as a film as much about Baker as about the fictional character. This is a woman who was accused of being more sexual than progressive and who’s tabloid-actions dominated her life. While the film isn’t as promiscuous as one might imagine, Baker – the real woman – is very much at the heart of it.
Allegret sprinkles other nice elements throughout: the bumbling producers, framed by the empty theater seats as if to anticipate the empty house come show-time; the Busby Berkeley-like overhead numbers, with hilarious set pieces like giant beds and combs (domesticity? Or just a notion for the absurd); multiple animal references (birds, dogs, jaguars) that are as much about human vs. animal in a freedom-sense, as they rhyme with the derogatory language used to occasionally refer to Zouzou (savage, cannibal); a roaming camera that frequently dollies, frames on windows, and pans in to start scenes, as though as interested in the surroundings and the movement of a bustling city and scene as it is in the characters themselves.
Here’s the poster for the film:
Of course Baker is top-billed, but check out that image. It’s a bit racist in a “savage” kind of way, and is actually more concerned with representing Baker’s banana dance, which makes its way into the film only indirectly, than it is with anything plot-related.
Below is a look at Baker singing Haiti in the film:
Most of this is simple performance shots – keeping Baker framed in a fairly uninteresting way so as to focus on the song and her body. The end, where she swan dives out, is a freeing moment, but it’s worth noting that when we see her in the cage next, there’s no such exit (freedom all but gone). This is another way that Zouzou runs counter to the Warner Bros. musicals at the time. Whereas this should naturally be the end – woman jumps out of cage, gets man, roll credits – it’s not. It’s a faux-ending, one that gives the catharsis one expects from this genre, but then recants it in the end.