A Discussion: Zazie dans le métro

Welcome to a second edition of this as-yet unnamed feature that is simply my friend Ashley and I discussing our differing opinions on movies. This time around, we talk about one of her favorite movies, Zazie dans le métro (1960), directed by Louis Malle.

Peter: So, what is it that you enjoy about Zazie dans le métro?

Ashley: This is one of those films that I enjoy nearly every aspect of. I think it’s amazing that the same person that made this also made Black Moon and Phantom India. There may be a fair bit of admiration for the versatility of Louis Malle here, but luckily for me there is a lot of Zazie to enjoy in its own right. What shines the most for me is the way Malle uses many silent film techniques, merging them into his narrative without making a comedy. The fast-motion, the silent comedy gags, and the animation work for me as a way to show the adult world that Zazie is ill-equipped to understand. The adult world is presented as pointless and motivated by whims, especially sex, and being a young girl Zazie doesn’t get it and I think that’s a powerful statement.

Peter: Damn. Those are really good points. Although I’m a huge fan of silent movies I didn’t even really catch that the film was using the techniques, and didn’t think about the message that those techniques were trying to convey. However, it still doesn’t really work for me. The way I see the film is like a 95-minute Sesame Street interlude with sex and naughty words. I’m kind of surprised that we don’t see a “letter-of-the-day” pop up at the end, and Zazie just kind of jump onto the screen and say “M!” or something.

Ashley: That would work for us since we’re both Fritz Lang fans, huh?

To me, that zaniness interspersed with such adolescence is where Malle wields his power in this picture. I am always in awe of the way he films children. He makes them whole people rather than merely a pendant of a parent. They belong to themselves, like Zazie belongs to herself. She is her own person, immature, frank, and uncultured as she is. I’m touched by her characterization because, despite how bawdy she is, she’s a victim of her culture. She is dropped off so her mother can have a romantic liaison, almost completely ignored yet also expected to grow up and mature while no one is providing her direction to do so. I think the playfulness of much of the filming speaks to that internal struggle for her.

Peter: Again, good points, and that’s what makes doing this enjoyable. However, it’s the zaniness that distracts me from all that could be good about the film. I know it probably sounds like I don’t have a sense of humor or something, but the movie didn’t even make me laugh. Not even once. It was an annoyance. Now, I love a good comedy as much as the next person, but I found nothing amusing here. Well, except one thing: soon after Zazie and “Unc” are on their way, their taxi comes to a stop in an intersection, and she utters “Take your new wave and –”, which is great because that’s exactly how I feel about French New Wave. There are some exceptions, but the movement doesn’t strike me at all. The other thing is that I just don’t get French humor. I love France. I love the French language. I love to laugh. But, none of those things go together very well at all.

Zazie dans le Metro (2)

Ashley: ——–The old Ashley can’t come to the doc right now. Why? Because she’s dead. Straight through my heart, Peter; the French New Wave is my favorite. I find it incredibly unfortunate that Louis Malle was so determined to keep himself separated from the New Wave. The same versatility I love about him may have been the byproduct of not wanting to get hemmed in. He certainly wanted to distance himself from the New Wave, anyway. I’ll die on that hill that Zazie isn’t intended to be a comedy. I saw Malle using these commonly comedic tropes as a means of masking a more sinister story. For instance, Zazie often seems to be on the brink of being sexually abused. Whether it be a timidness toward filmmaking being early in his career or something else, Malle seemed to put in ridiculous scenes in order to avoid facing these issues in a more straightforward way. Perhaps, that is even more linked to wanting to tell the story from her point of view. She seemed to be on the verge of being victimized at the table with the police personnel (or whoever that was) and the way she “made sense” of that abuse of power seemed to be telling a story that ends in a gruesome death. I don’t know if that was intended to be seen as a coping technique or not, but it seemed that most of the time the film was at its wildest was Zazie trying to work out some aspect of life she wasn’t yet able to understand.

Peter: I kind of broke your brain, didn’t I? So the sexual abuse thing…it is something that I noticed, and it was certainly brought to us in the form of that moment when she whispers something to someone in the crowd, who then whispers to another, and so on. We never hear what Zazie says, but it’s clearly lewd, and through the game of telephone, the message is probably completely warped by the time it gets to the last person. I’ve seen only a small number of Malle’s films, so I don’t have the exposure to make me well-informed on his filmmaking, but I see what you’re saying. The issue is that I clearly got caught up in the fact that the movie is classified as a comedy, which you’re doing a great job of pointing out that that may not be the case. Even keeping that in mind, I’m not sure I can enjoy the movie, but I can definitely look at it through a different lens than on my first two times watching it.

But, back to New Wave for a moment. Even though it isn’t my thing, I keep giving it a chance, and will keep on despite my disappointment with it. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.

Ashley: Broke my heart is more like it, though your promise to keep giving the New Wave a chance helps me mend the shattered pieces.

You’re of course right that Zazie is classified as a comedy and it kills me how great of a disservice that does to the film. I’m not sure if Malle intended it to be taken as such or if it was listed as such due to the stream-of-consciousness slapstick tropes or what happened, but it’s disheartening because genre classification outlines perception, I know it does for me, anyway.

Certain bits like that game of telephone make me wonder if Zazie is actually saying anything especially lewd, or if in an effort to grow up without much help, she’s repeating what adults say and is met with surprise because she’s a child. One part of this film that I really love is how much Malle is seeming to criticize that culture of parenting. He comes off as a sort of advocate for engaged child development, which is a mindset I appreciate seeing highlighted on film.

Peter: When we talked about Rushmore, I felt that you were digging too deep for meaning that may not have been there, but this time you are probably 100% correct, and I didn’t go deep enough. It probably isn’t enough to persuade, though. There just isn’t enough about the film to make it endearing to me, even if I now have a better understanding of the message.

Ashley: If the plight of neglected children doesn’t sway you, there’s nothing I can do 😉

In all seriousness, I get that; I can see how the filming techniques can be off-putting and even distract from the narrative. If you haven’t seen it, I just checked and it’s not logged on your Letterboxd, though that doesn’t mean anything, I would recommend Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants or Murmur of the Heart. To me, Zazie is a precursor in a lot of ways to both of those films. Through both you get to see more of Malle’s excellent direction of children, you see the world through their perspective, and how ill-fitting they are as adolescents on the cusp of entering the adult world, but they illustrate the maturation and loss of innocence in a much more poignant way.

Peter: Au Revoir Les Enfants has been on my FilmStruck watchlist for a while, but I never get around to it. Sometime soon. I have a feeling I’ll like it, but I don’t do well watching movies about the holocaust or that have children who are suffering. I’m a softy, y’know.

Ashley: That’s the first word that always comes to mind when I think of you–softy. 😉

I won’t spoil it, of course, but Malle handles it well. Glad to hear you’re Team Zazie now, this was a wonderful discussion!

For more movie opinions, follow Ashley on Twitter @oOoOoBarracuda, and check out her Letterboxd page, too. You can find me on Twitter @PeterPutzel, Letterboxd, and right here in the Back Row, Center Seat. See you next time!


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