Signs that 1960’s Zazie Dans Le Métro will be confusing begin with its title. An adaptation of a bestselling novel by French author Raymond Queneau, Louis Malle’s film stars Catherine Demongeot as a provincial girl put in the care of her Parisian uncle (Philippe Noiret) while her mother spends two days in the city with a new boyfriend. Obsessed with riding the subway, Demongeot makes a beeline for the Métro, only to find it shut down by a transit strike. But Malle gives her a guided tour through Paris’ bustling, beautiful, perilous streets using virtually every other means of transportation. Demongeot leaves it with a smile on her gap-toothed face, and in her words, “older.” Viewers may leave Zazie wrung out from the manic action, but also sure they’ve never seen another film like it.
Malle’s reputation doesn’t rest on his accomplishments at experimenting with form, but with Zazie, he pulls out every trick imaginable, and some just then being imagined, particularly some gestures simpatico with the still-forming French New Wave. (François Truffaut was a fan.) From the moment Demongeot steps off the train, Malle presents Paris as a candy-colored wonderland of pretty confusion in which any moment could, and often does, become a frantic live-action cartoon. That’s partly an attempt to stay true to the source. Queneau’s novel is famed for its wordplay, a quality that doesn’t translate easily to film, and even less easily into other languages. (The English subtitles do an admirable job conveying at least a sense of the language games, though, via words like “damgoddit”).
With Noiret at her side only part of the time, Demongeot navigates a Paris filled with vivid attractions and seemingly permanently aroused adults. Everyone around her is on the make, and though she’s still a pre-teen, she isn’t always exempt from their attentions. Beneath the high spirits, there’s a sense of threat, reinforced by a scene in which Demongeot gleefully, messily eats a plate of mussels as she tells a new acquaintance how she came to have only one parent after her mother killed her father, apparently after setting up a trap in which she could catch him attempting to molest Demongeot. But did it really happen? Zazie is at least partly its protagonist’s subjective fantasy, but Malle remains uninterested in, or maybe incapable of, drawing a line between the real and the unreal. In one particularly memorable scene, a chase gets ever crazier as it goes on, and ever more reliant on comedy gags from the silent era. (Though years away from directing A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack… And How To Get It, Richard Lester was no doubt watching carefully and taking notes.)
Critic Michael Atkinson has likened Zazie to “a film from Mars, a very French Mars,” and its overcranked mix of whimsy and experimentation makes it simultaneously fascinating and exhausting. It’s easy to be grateful for the film, and equally easy to be thankful there’s nothing else like it. Even Malle didn’t try to repeat it when he made another foray into fantasy with Black Moon in 1975. The film is set—as Malle can be seen explaining in a vintage interview included on the new DVD and Blu-ray version—in a grim future in which war has broken out between men and women, though viewers could be forgiven for not picking up on that detail. In the same interview, Malle admits even he doesn’t explain everything about the movie, and he’s okay with that. Anyone not sharing that spirit might do well to avoid the movie, a succession of surreal scenes filmed in the overcast surroundings of a stately home—Malle’s own—located in southwest France. (Most did avoid it during its original release.)
Cathryn Harrison, Rex Harrison’s granddaughter, plays Black Moon’s teenage protagonist, first seen fleeing guerilla warfare by escaping to the countryside. Stumbling onto the grounds of a country house, she spots a fat, brown unicorn that she chases to the house itself. Soon she meets an old woman (Therese Giehse, star of Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien), a giant rat the woman treats as pet and confidante, a gaggle of naked children chasing a pig, and a pair of androgynous siblings played by Alexandra Stewart and Andy Warhol fixture Joe Dallesandro. All of them act out roles that shift without warning, shifts that often make them uncomfortably intimate with each other, or at least uncomfortably intimate to those on the outside looking in.
Joyce Buñuel, the daughter-in-law of Luis Buñuel, gets a credit for additional dialogue, and though there’s little dialogue of any kind in Black Moon, it’s fitting that the film bears the name of one of its greatest influences. Drawing from Buñuel, Malle uses surreal imagery to great effect, twisting elements into unsettling reflections of the everyday. The look, however, comes on loan from another filmmaker. Malle hired Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose hazy, twilight tones create an atmosphere fraught with tension. An old woman suckling at the breast of a young one is unnerving enough, but for every disturbing image Malle offers, Nykvist’s photography keeps suggesting that something even more horrific might be just around the corner.
At times, the film feels like a lost collaboration between Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman. But it also plays like the grown-up companion piece to Zazie, with Harrison now playing the part of a girl surrounded by adult desires. Only here, the protagonist is too aware of the world, and maybe too curious about it, to hide behind her own innocence. Also like Zazie, it has no obligation to be coherent, and ends up feeling like it’s chasing its own tail, finding the same images and themes each time around. But both films are thrilling until the queasiness kicks in.
Key features: Many archival interviews on both discs, which also feature particularly fine essays from critic Ginette Vincendeau.