Zazie dans le Metro

It’s not hard to imagine that a film about the escapades of a precocious tyke scampering through the streets of gay Paree could descend into the saccharine. Fortunately, Louis Malle’s 1960 film Zazie dans le Metro does not become overly schmaltzy. Unfortunately, however, it does become a bit blasé, which is quite a feat for a film involving a transvestite and creative use of profanities.

A sort of child’s fantasy told in brilliant colors, the film follows the adventures of Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), an 11-year-old girl sent to spend the weekend in Paris with her cross-dressing uncle (Philippe Noiret). Don’t expect a mini Amélie; Zazie isn’t your typical young French waif. Rather, she’s a foul-mouthed brat more comfortable shoplifting in an open market and trading insults with street vendors than playing with dolls.

Soon after Zazie’s mother leaves her with Uncle Gabriel, we learn that Zazie’s fondest dream is to ride the Parisian subway (le Metro). Alas, on the weekend of Zazie’s visit to Paris, the Metro workers are on strike.

Discontented, Zazie strikes off on her own and embarks on a series of surreal adventures that involve Gabriel, his cabbie friend Charles, a hapless policeman, a man-hungry socialite whose attentions are as fluid as her neckline, and a seemingly endless series of foot chases. In various configurations, the group romps around a Technicolor Paris that looks exactly like a child’s vision of a big city. In Malle’s hands, Paris is a wonderland saturated with bright colors and even brighter characters.

It would be hard to find fault with the visual elements of the film. Malle’s eye for color and framing, generally unerring, are given free rein here — four young women floating gently down from the top of the Eiffel Tower buoyed by large blue balloons, and a shockingly crimson spill of wine bursting from a broken bottle. Each scene presents unthreateningly surreal imagery, gorgeously realized and rich in color and texture.

Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative appeal isn’t up to par. Zazie, despite — or perhaps because of — her foul mouth and abrasive personality, is an appealing character, and the supporting characters are also pleasing. But the young girl’s escapades, amusing at first, grow tiresome by their repetitiveness. By the final free-for-all (which involves almost the entire considerable cast) it seems as though Zazie’s weekend visit has overstayed its welcome.

The film is a visual feast that’s well-acted and charming more often than not, but those looking for a tighter narrative or well-knit plot may prefer Malle’s more serious-minded works.


In French with English subtitles. Showing at 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).

Nancy Kaffer writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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