Although often linked to the French New Wave of 1960s art cinema, Louis Malle has little connection with the movement other than producing movies at around the same time. But after watching 'Zazie dans le métro,' it is easy to see why the director's name tends to be mentioned in the same breadth as Truffaut, Godard and Resnais. This fantastically wonderful gem of a comedy is a daring, experimental portrayal of a simple but wildly colorful tale about a little girl in the big city. It shows several of the radical, exploitative techniques associated with the film movement and celebrates the language of cinema. The movie even makes mention of New Wave in a comical conversation about French architecture, not as a dismissal or approval, but as an awareness to the shift in film art.
In fact, the 1960 comedy displays a great deal of self-awareness throughout, none of which is as subtle as it being conscious of something new emerging amongst filmmakers and French culture. While much of the film is an intentional exhibition of Paris living — like a whimsical joyride through the City of Lights — Malle is sure to include scenes of a local, downstairs bar going through its own changes. No one character explicitly comments on it, but it's fairly clear the owner (Hubert Deschamps) is remodeling in order to keep up with the times, altering the design's antiquated charm so as to stay relevant. The sequences showing this change are part of an implicit subplot that interrupts the narrative proper at curious moments, as if to comment on the rapid pace at which city life modernizes itself. Moving at this speed, it eventually explodes into a comically destructive riot that reveals newness and modernity as an artificial, meaningless façade.
Meanwhile, the provincial Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) ignores all that's happening around her and takes audiences on a parade through the Parisian streets. Frustrated by the métro strike, the one thing she was most determined to visit, the quick-witted, fast-talking little girl sets out to see the sights and gives us a small sample of city culture. Making her acting debut is the wonderfully charming Demongeot, who is able to keep up on the clever wordplay with her eccentric uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) and a clownish con artist, Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli). It's somewhat of a shame she didn't turn this appearance into an acting career — she only appeared in three more films after this one — because she's charismatic and gives the film a delightful energy.
The film as a whole, of course, exhibits an enchantingly whimsical vitality that funnily exudes from the way Malle experiments with filmmaking techniques. Co-written with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, the director adapts the wildly unconventional novel by Raymond Queneau, which was believed impossible to film because of the way it challenges traditional narrative structures and deconstructs language. But Malle smartly uses it as a way to also explore the structure and form of film, calling attention not only to itself but also to the art of cinema altogether, deliberately exposing the craft and illusion. Camera speed alternates at odd moments and sudden, inexplicable jump cuts interrupt various scenes, making for a quirkily outlandish film-going experience.
Released the same year as Godard's 'Breathless' but months before Resnais's 'Last Year at Marienbad,' Malle's 'Zazie' sits comfortably as part of the New Wave film movement. Only, it never takes itself seriously and is filled with side-splitting absurdity, in many ways predicting Jacques Tati's 'Playtime.' Some sequences are brilliantly orchestrated, like watching a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. I'm thinking primarily of the chase between Zazie and Trouscaillon which lasts for several minutes and is terrifically hilarious. 'Zazie dans le métro' is a deliciously fun concoction of slapstick, irreverent humor and visual expertise, satirizing the modern Parisian lifestyle. It's a must-watch for connoisseurs of zany French cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Louis Malle's 'Zazie dans le métro' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #570) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is an 18-page booklet with color pictures of the film. It also features a terrific, comprehensive essay entitled "Girl Trouble" by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
Taken from a 35mm interpositive, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode looks great for the most part, but the print is sadly showing its age and some wear.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the transfer displays strong definition of the fine lines in clothing, hair and the unique architectural design of many interiors. There are several moments, however, where the picture suddenly softens and turns noticeably blurry, something likely inherent to the source. Clarity and resolution are also good with nicely-balanced contrast, allowing for terrific visibility of small background info. Black levels are true and accurate with shadow details that are plain and discernible in scenes at night. The color palette is a bit muted with a stronger emphasis on the secondary hues, which is also a result of the original photography, but primaries are cleanly rendered. The video shows a consistent layer of film grain, giving it a lovely cinematic quality fans will love and making this a great Blu-ray of a Louis Malle classic.
Also remastered from the same print, this uncompressed PCM monaural soundtrack offers a generally good performance. Dialogue reproduction is consistently strong and easy to hear, and dynamics are mostly positive with clean definition and clarity. However, the lossless mix can at times feel somewhat restricted, lacking a bit of depth and spaciousness to several sequences in the bustling Paris streets. The music, too, doesn't appear to breadth much, but it's perfectly audible throughout. It doesn't help that the track is also missing a low-end, which only adds to the film feeling narrow and confined. This is likely due to the original design and not a fault in the high-resolution codec.
Overall, it's a good soundtrack to a great comedy, just nothing impressive or memorable about it either.
Available day-and-date as its DVD counterpart, this Blu-ray arrives with the same set of bonus features. For fans and Malle enthusiasts, the collection is a pleasant treasure trove of archival footage and interviews.
1960's 'Zazie dans le métro' is a marvelously charming comedy classic from Louis Malle, often associated with the French New Wave movement. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Raymond Queneau, the experimental film is an amusing satire on the modern Parisian life as seen through the eyes of Zazie, a brutally-honest and cynical little rascal. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with very good video and average mono audio while supplemental package offers a strong assortment of new and vintage interviews. Fans and Malle admirers will be happy with the purchase, and others are recommended to not miss out on a great comedy.