Based on a novel by surrealist-absurdist author Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro is almost impossible to synopsise but here goes… During a trip to Paris, 11 year old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) is foisted on her uncle, Gabriel (Philippe Noiret), while mama (Odette Piquet) spends a dirty weekend with her new beau. Eager to ride the Paris Metro, Zazie is irked when a railway strike leaves this impossible. So, the mischief maker turns the city upside down in a series of madcap adventures.
Foul-mouthed, fun-loving Zazie is one of cinema’s great anarchic anti-heroines. Co-writer, with Jean-Paul Rappeneau (of Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) fame), and director Louis Malle tailors the film around this precocious poppet with seemingly magical powers. Early on Zazie throws her shoes into the air and suddenly they’re on her feet. Thereafter she does stuff Bugs Bunny would envy: pops in and out of space and time, throws cartoon bombs or sticks of dynamite, and flummoxes grownups in zany, fast-motion chase sequences that mimic silent comedies.
Malle concocts a live-action cartoon but one with an insightful lunacy. It’s a witty and perceptive social satire with adults who behave more childishly than kids and a redoubtable little heroine who sees through such grownup follies. While Zazie’s playful pranks might ordinarily send sensitive souls screaming for social services, as played by impish gamine Catherine Demongeot she is a smart and sassy delight. Demongeot made only a handful of movies following Zazie, including a reprise of this iconic role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est Une Femme (1961), and today works as a historian.
She is partnered by that wily scene-stealer Philippe Noiret, who delivers arguably his wittiest comic performance as the long-suffering cabaret performer. Gabriel’s drag act has almost everyone thinking he is homosexual (“What’s a homosessual?” asks Zazie), although he winds up fending off a bevy of sexy blonde German tourists called the Five Gretchens.
Dialogue is part loopy double-talk (“Damn god it!”) or occasional rhyme while the helter-skelter pacing finds room for some sweet natured romance from lovebirds Mado (Annie Fratellini) and Charles (Antoine Roblot), goofy lechery from the duplicitous policeman (or is he really a train conductor?) Trouscaillion (Vitorio Caprioli) who lusts after Gabriel’s doll-like wife Albertine (Carla Marlier) but wilfully flirts with wealthy widow Madame Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and - gasp! - even young Zazie. Lookout for Zazie’s dream sequence, an avant-garde showcase for Malle’s surreal camerawork and editing set to a beautiful score by Fiorenzino Carpi and André Pontin. And those split-second sight gags that range from a character who momentarily turns from a white into a black actor, a reappearing polar bear (or guy in a bear suit anyway) and when Zazie eats her way through a mountain of oysters, only to discover a pearl and throw it away.
A consistently entertaining, deliriously inventive comic gem, Zazie is reputed to have played in French theatres for two years!