By Anthony Davis
Louis Malle’s Zazie was released in 1960, a somewhat sunnier contemporary to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom: a film so badly received at the time that it virtually destroyed his career. Both film-makers were saying something new and true, but Malle, although controversial and with a similar delight in addressing taboos, did not seem to have materially damaged his prospects for future film-making in the same way. I recently attended an enlightening event at The Cinema Museum, thanks to John Davies, to learn more about the film and Malle’s colourful directorial career.
The film, like its youthful title character (Catherine Demongeot), has enormous energy: Zazie’s wakeful activity is coupled with the capacity to sleep through Armageddon. Filming this novel may have appealed to Malle because of that very vivacity, undaunted irreverence and also because it had previously been considered impossible: nothing better than a challenge for Malle!
As the enlightening book Malle on Malle (one of a series on directors by Faber: this particular instalment documents conversations Philip French had with Malle) gives a synopsis, I shall not give my own, not least because the film – probably like the book that it realizes – defies meaningful summary.
Zazie has few illusions, though she is, naturally, entranced by blue jeans and by the idea of the Métro, being unfamiliar with Paris. She starts the film by snubbing the taxi that her Uncle Gabriel (played by Philippe Noiret) has waiting for them – not just because, in true slapstick fashion, it’s full to the brink with other hopeful passengers – and tries to run off into the Métro.
She knows what she wants, and she doesn’t want to be fussed over by Gabriel or his landlord, easily accepting her abandonment to Gabriel’s care so that her mother can go off with her lover. In search of a good time, Zazie courts danger with impunity, treating everything as a game, and she partly has the freedom for her adventures courtesy of falsely implicating the landlord (cleverly mirrored in a following scene starring the mysterious Trouscaillon).
The exuberance of the film, fuelled by Zazie even when asleep on the hoof (leaning on a car’s wing) and throwing bombs at Trouscaillon in a car-chase, no doubt mirrors that of the novel. The overall impact is crazy and, although Malle said that it went off the rails in the last third, it is almost impossible to know where that happened. The scenes which take place up the Eiffel Tower are truly vertiginous, with access that may have been usual at that time.
The scenes on the streets of Paris are reminiscent of the Keystone Kops, but Malle reclaims that insane energy in a way that makes it seem wholly new, wholly unnerving. That feeds into the final onslaught in the restaurant, where, without explanation, it is the waiters against the diners with no holds barred but, true to form, Zazie sleeps.