MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD’s, Co-Picks of the Week: Classics. Zazie dans le Metro, Pale Flower.


“Zazie dans le Metro” (Three and a Half Stars)

France: Louis Malle, 1960 (Criterion)

An impish little girl named Zazie, with pre-Beatle bangs, an unusually profane vocabulary and a seemingly endless sense of adventure, travels to Paris on the train with her mother (Odette Piquet). As soon as they hit Paris, her maman departs with her lover and leaves Zazie, a 12 year old French gamine (played by the delightfully brash little Catherine Demongeot), to spend the day with the girl’s’s obliging, free-spirited Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret). Zazie, tiny but indomitable, has a startling lack of reliance on adults, and that’s probably all to the good, since, as a babysitter, Gabriel seems initially a big fat fish out of water.

Mon Oncle Gabriel, in fact, is a drag entertainer whose Playtime is at a local restaurant-cabaret, where his size and manner recall that classic description of Oliver Hardy: “elephant on tippy-toe.” Zazie keeps calling her uncle a “hormosessual,” even though the tart-tongued Gabriel is married to a loving wife named Albertine (Carla Marlier), who has the sweetest of dispositions and the looks of a movie star. But apparently, a “hormosessual” he is. 


With or without Gabriel, young fille from the provinces Zazie has one big wish for her Parisian trip: She wants to take a ride on the Paris Metro. But the metro is on strike, and the subway gates are locked, so Zazie has to be content, for a while, with zipping around town in a taxicab with Gabriel and an exuberant driver (Antoine Roblot), who cheerfully misidentify landmarks (The Church of St. Vincent de Paul becomes the Pantheon) and keep getting caught in the traffic jams that the metro strike has caused.


Soon however, Zazie has broken away, and she spends the day racing through the City of Light, picking up all sorts of strange new friends and enemies — Yvonne Clech as a lovelorn old dame on the prowl, Annie Fratellini of the famous Fratellini clown family as a bouncy red-headed barmaid, Vittorio Caprioli as a persistent flic (and various other killjoys). And, in the course of Zazie’s super-spree, she turns Paris into a huge playground and the Eiffel Tower, in one astonishing scene, into an ultimate jungle gym. At the end, we see what looks like the beginning of a café revolution (Malle was ever the gentleman leftist), or maybe a pie fight with fire-arms instead of pies.

Next morning, our game little gamine heads home….Older? Wiser? Who can say? Oh, they finally settle the Metro strike, not quite soon enough for little Zazie.


Zazie dans le Metro was the movie that made Philippe Noiret a star — beginning a brilliant half-century film career and striking a blow for all those great movie actors who don’t look like Alain Delon. The film didn’t ultimately make a star of Catherine Demongeot. She only acted in three more films, and one of them was a cameo as Zazie, for Godard‘s A Woman is a Woman. But it gave her something more precious: It made her immortal.

Malle too, maybe — along with his more conventional masterpieces Le Feu Follet, Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir, les Enfants. The wacky Zazie dans le Metro was his third feature film — the fourth, if you include his co-directing chores on Jacques Cousteau’s Oscar and Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or-winning underwater documentary The Silent World (1956). And, with it’s  effervescent mob of screwball characters, its deliberately frenetic style, and its gorgeous vistas of Paris on the run, Zazie was a complete departure, and an exhilarating one, from the more somber, fear-drenched world of the films above, and of Malle’s two 1958 black-and-white films with Jeanne Moreau: the noir thriller Elevator to the Gallows and the erotic drama The Lovers.

“Zazie” contains one of the most terrifying movie scenes that I can recall in any non-thriller: the long, breath-taking romp on and up the Eiffel Tower, which we see (the real tower, no tricks, no CGI), back-dropped by all of Paris in vertiginous deep focus — from the open-air spiral staircase as Zazie’s gang dizzyingly race up it, or right near the edges of the floors, where Gabriel seems to be skittering right up to and almost over the edge. If you have any fear of heights, this amazing comic thrill sequence (as memorable, if not as acrobatically virtuosic, as Harold Lloyd’s high jinks in Safety Last) will both tickle and maybe even cure you.

Malle never made anything like this movie before, and really, nothing much like it since , though Zazie is arguably just as influential on the free-wheeling ’60s cinema to come, as Godard’s Breathless. (More actually.) Its all there: photo-kaleidoscopic color, free-spirited youngsters and oddballs racing around a great city, sped-up photography, irreverent taboo-shattering humor, playful revolutionary politics and playful sexuality, inside gags and pop culture references and allusions galore — everything, in fact, but a rock n’ roll sound track, which you wouldn’t have expected anyway in 1960 from a Charlie Parker aficionado like Malle. (Instead Malle, who had hired Miles Davis to write the music for Elevator to the Gallows, uses cool jazz and a sprightly score by Florenzo Carpi.)

Would there be A Hard Day‘s Night, a Help!, a Head, a The Knack…and How to Get It, or all the other Swingin’ ’60s flicks, without the jazzy example of Zazie? Probably. But Demongeot‘s Zazie, whose pudding basin haircut makes her look like a Beatle-ette, or maybe The Marx Brothers’ little sister, got there first.

The movie, whose throwaway charm is far more calculated than it seems, is based on one of the major French literary classics of the 20th century: Raymond Queneau’s novel of the same name, which scholar Ginette Vincendeau describes in the Criterion Zazie booklet as “the funniest book ever written in, or about, the French language.”

Ha ha, helas! Queneau, a one-time surrealist (Hallo, Dali!) and member of the French literary elite, combined almost Joycean, Flann O’Brien-ish wordplay with a radical spirit and outrageous comedy to write a writerly book that became both massively popular and a cognoscenti treat. Malle and his excellent co-scenarist, Jean-Paul Rappenau (who later wrote De Broca’s That Man From Rio, and directed Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac), took this classic and replaced most of the word-play with cinema-play. Wonderfully, exuberantly.

 What Malle got was one of the great Paris location movies of all time, one of the best and most inventive literary adaptations and also a film that divided critics — Malle’s often get pretty nasty — but has remained popular and a true cult film to this day. One Parisian theatre played it once a week for twenty years. And, for my entire life, I’ve kept running into cinema or art or just plain Zazie buffs — usually somewhat rebellious, usually smart, usually full of life and high spirits, often with a smile on their faces that’s a bit like Catherine Demongeot’s — who will suddenly say “Did you ever see Zazie dans le Metro? What a wonderful film!” (In French, with English subtitles.) (Released June 28)

 Extras: Interviews with Malle, Queneau, Rappeneau, William Klein and Demongeot; 2005 video piece “Le Paris du Zazie”; Trailer; Booklet with essay by Ginette Vincendeau.


“Pale Flower” (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

Japan: Masahiro Shinoda, 1964 (Criterion)

One of the artiest and most visually stunning neo-noirs ever, and a high spot of the ‘60s Japanese New Wave, this doom-soaked tale of a taciturn yakuza ex-con named Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), who falls madly in love with beautiful gambling addict Saeko (Mariko Kaga), and sinks with her into a silken hell, is shot by director/co-writer Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi in black and white images of a lush, seedy Yokohama underworld of gambling dens and dark streets that should knock your eyes out. And it’s acted out by the terrific-looking, iconic stars Ikebe and Kaga to one of the great film composer Toru Takemitsu’s best early, nerve-jangling scores.

In 1969, Shinoda would have an international breakthrough with an even artier film, the prize-winning tragic romance Double Suicide. But some buffs regard Pale Flower as his best film, or at least his best black and white film. Unlike that other arty, offbeat, more-for-your-money ‘60s crime thriller expert Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Shinoda doesn’t try to blast you out of your seat with angle shots and violence. This is the kind of subtle, understated psychological crime drama that a Sidney Lumet or a Jean-Pierre Melville might make. High praise, but the movie deserves it. (In Japanese, with subtitles.)

Extras: Interview with Shinoda; Selected-scene commentary by Takemitsu music expert Peter Grilli; Original trailer; Booklet with fine Chuck Stephens essay.



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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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