Throw Dada From The Train: Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro, 60 Years Later

Zazie dans le Métro | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Trains can move between worlds. It’s a train, not an airplane or car, that transports the Pevensie children to visit Narnia in Prince Caspian—and it’s a train that takes them to stay in Aslan the lion’s country forever in The Last Battle after it crashes here on Earth. When the fledgling wizards of England need to go to school in the Harry Potter world, they buy a train ticket. Trains can go to dark places too, like the subway train that bears New Yorkers to a butcher’s underworld in Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train or to nightmare alternate dimensions in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and The Invisibles comics. 

Trains give you room to explore, both on them and off; they can be derailed, they can be halted, they can be reversed. A plane only goes to one place, and God help you if it gets off-track. There’s a reason why almost all our fantastical stories around planes involve crashes and disappearances—there’s no second set of rails up in the sky for them to jump onto. It’s that liminal quality about locomotives that makes those stories about silent film audiences panicking at the sight of an oncoming train in the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat so believable. Rolling from one reality into another is what trains do best.

Like so many kids, I had a train phase growing up. As a boy, my mother used to take me every other weekend to the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale. We lived 15 minutes away from it, and some weekends she’d drive me there so I could ride on the miniature railway that snakes around the park. I would explore the railroad museum and gawk at the full-sized steam locomotives, cabooses, coach car, and trolleys scattered around the park. 

When I finally got to ride trains in Europe with my family, I was thrilled by their speed, but also by the sense of security inside them. I could watch the French countryside hurtle past our TGV’s window while sitting perfectly still or walking from one compartment to another. There was a rich sense of possibility that anything could happen inside it—a murder, perhaps! A conspiracy, whispering behind closed luxury car doors. Secret agents playing footsies with briefcases under each other’s seats. Or maybe someone would sever the connection between cars and we’d find ourselves stranded in a strange new country.

I’d find other obsessions soon enough, and the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park became a place I’d only visit in memories. But I never forgot their appeal. So when I watched Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro for the first time, I completely understood Zazie’s rage at not being able to ride the Metro. The petulant, who-gives-a-shit attitude she cops when her cab driver and her uncle tried to show her all the cultural wonders of Paris made perfect sense to me: I’ve been to the Arc de Triomphe, and I’ve been on the Paris metro. Ten-year-old me would rather have taken the metro too.

Released in 1960, Zazie dans le Métro was Malle’s third full-length film, a major stylistic shift from the moody, monochromatic noir and romanticism of Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers. An adaptation of a Raymond Queneau novel, the film is a full-color, live-action cartoon: An hour-and-a-half blast of Dadaist lunacy that feels like it’s being transmitted from an entirely different universe.

To cinephiles who are familiar with Malle through films like My Dinner with Andre or Murmur of the Heart, the manic surreality of Zazie will come as a shock—unless you’ve seen his deranged 1975 talking animals fantasia Black Moon (which makes Zazie look like a Ron Howard joint in comparison). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Malle was an auteur who seemed to leave few traces of himself in his work. You can close your eyes and picture what a Godard film looks like; it’s harder to do this with Malle, who would jump genres and alter his approach from one film to another. Like Jonathan Demme, Malle was a director who snuck his obsessions into his film like a pickpocket working in reverse: Demme would fill the pockets of his films with his love for music and his intense humanism, while Malle would drop in a few of his own pet obsessions. It’s one of those particular interests that drew him to Queneau’s novel in the first place.

In Malle On Malle, the director talks about how many of his films deal with a loss of innocence: “It’s something which I’ve observed over all these years: the world I’m looking at is never quite what it’s supposed to be. What was absolutely central to Zazie, something that I keep discovering and put into my films more and more, is the fact that people—adults especially— constantly say one thing and do the opposite. The basic lies of our lives.”

Malle the shapeshifter was also drawn to Queneau’s book because it posed a significant challenge for anyone trying to adapt it. “Everybody kept telling me, ‘Stay away from the book, you’ll never make it into a film, it’s impossible,’” Malle wrote in Malle On Malle.

It was a foregone conclusion that someone would turn Zazie into a film; at one point René Clément was slated to helm the project. Published in 1959 (the same year where Hiroshima Mon Amour, Breathless, and The 400 Blows came out), it was Raymond Queneau’s 13th novel. It also turned out to be his commercial breakthrough. Zazie dans le Métro became a surprise bestseller, and nobody could have been more surprised at its fluke success than Queneau himself. 

He’d spent decades working in the avant-garde, building up an impressive CV. He was briefly a member of the Surrealists, joined the College de’ Pataphysique, and helped found the Oulipo literary movement. He wrote a book that collected 99 retellings of the same story in a variety of different styles, and also created a book of 10 sonnets printed on strips that could be reconfigured into over 100 million different sonnets. The fact that he could then write an extremely popular best-seller boggles the mind. And yet somehow he did—in the twilight of his life, Raymond Queneau produced a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon.

He also produced a book that was a screenwriter’s nightmare.

To understand the challenges that Malle and his writing partner Jean-Paul Rappeneau faced, you have to understand what makes Zazie a great novel. It is not a book where the character is king or where plot drives the action. There’s precious little of the latter and all the characters in the book are fixed comic types. In true sitcom spirit, nobody learns anything and everything resets to zero by the last page. What makes the book so endearing is its language and tone. It’s a deeply irreverent book, one that takes great pleasure in herding as many sacred cows it can find straight through the abattoir.

With Zazie, Queneau, an admirer of James Joyce, essentially crafted a bite-size hybrid of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The book is the day in the life of the titular character (that occasionally shifts perspectives to the people she crosses paths with) making her way through a city (Paris, in place of Joyce’s Dublin) and encountering a large cross-section of people. And like Finnegans Wake, it’s a book that takes joy in chewing up language and mashing words together into new combinations. But Zazie is a much more accessible book than either, and her day in Paris wraps up in less than 200 pages.

Queneau wrote the book in a style that he dubbed “Neo-French.” It’s colloquial, full of misspellings and portmanteaus—like a child trying to build something they saw once with Silly-Putty. Blue jeans gets rendered as “blewgenes,” uncles turn into “unkoos,” and homosexuals become “hormosessuals.” Explain becomes “iksplain.” 

To further muddy the linguistic waters, Queneau employs beautifully strange images and idioms. A particular favorite is when one character dreams of dating a woman who could be “a nice plump chicken to whom he could make a gift of the 45 cherries of his summers.” Another character is described as having filaments of beef “wedged in among his dentition.” Queneau has a way of saying rude things with the most polite language possible, He calls the “little chap” by the side of a “good lady” “probably the one legally entitled to mount her.” There are passages where Queneau runs riot with his wording and he leaves you to figure out what “dabbed his boko” or “extirpated from his sleeve” could be referring to.

The surrealistic wordplay never gets in the way, though: It’s a propulsive read, carried along by Zazie’s gives-no-fucks, foul-mouthed attitude. Raised by a single mom who spends more time with her beaus than with her “brat,” 12-year old Zazie is Alfred Jarry’s Pa Ubu reincarnated as a little girl: vicious, selfish, and gleefully indifferent to the feelings of others and social mores.   That makes Malle’s interest in the character all the more unusual: there’s no innocence left to be lost for Zazie. She rolls into the train station at the start of the story fully aware that adults are full of shit, and she leaves Paris at the end with nary a piece of evidence to convince her otherwise. We can’t even say she’s wrong based on how everyone else in Queneau’s world acts.

The solution that Malle and Rappeneau came up with to adapt a book where basically nothing cinematic happens was to turn Zazie into a full-on Chuck Jones character. Malle set out to do what Queneau did in his book—twist and bend their mediums until it said “unkoo!”

Zazie was difficult because we were always trying to find some equivalent to what Queneau was doing with literature,” Malle wrote in Malle On Malle. “It was playing with literature and I thought it would be just as interesting to try to do the same thing with cinematic language.”

The basic premise of Queneau’s book remains intact in the film: Zazie (played by Catherine Demongeot in her first film role) gets dropped off by her mother at the train station so she can have a rendezvous with her boyfriend, leaving Zazie in the care of her cabaret performer and cross-dressing uncle, Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, also making his film debut). Zazie wants nothing more than to take the metro, but the subway train is shut down due to strikes, which leaves her to run wild around Paris and cause all kinds of trouble. 

Through her rampages she meets an assortment of characters. Gabriel’s kind but remote, almost Stepfordian wife Albertine (Carla Marlier); Madame Mouaque (Yvonne Clech), a widow who essentially fills the “Jerry” role from Parks & Recreation by being universally loathed by everyone; cafe owner Turandot (Hubert Deschamps), who feeds his parrot grenadine; and the Count Olaf-esque Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), a pervert who chases after Zazie with Wile E. Coyote tenacity before transforming into a cop and later into a military dictator (who gets assassinated in classic Looney Tunes fashion via a dropped piano).

One of the few (but absolutely crucial) changes Malle and his partner made to the text is Trouscaillon. In Queneau’s book, the pervert and the cop are separate characters (although the cop later reveals himself to be a dictator, just like in the film). By combining these two figures into one person, it gives Zazie an antagonist—a Sylvester to her Tweety, a Toby to her Michael Scott—that helps drive the narrative forward.

Malle also uses Neo-French in the film, throwing in “blewgenes” and “bitching up the brats” and many of the other slightly-off phrases Zazie uses in the book. For viewers who don’t understand French, reading the subtitles can give the impression that the translators must have hit up a case or two of cough syrup before clocking in.

Where the film thrives (and surpasses the book) is in how Malle infuses his frames with the same playful and irreverent spirit that animates Queneau’s book. A clever trick Malle employed was shooting many of the scenes at a speed of 8-frames or sometimes 12-frames per second while having the actors play in slow motion. This creates an effect where things in the background move three times faster than they’re supposed to. It allows the characters to zip and dart around each other like Roadrunners.

He also used subtle tricks to heighten the unreality of his film. In one sequence where Zazie and Trouscaillon (in his pedophile form) eat mussels at a restaurant, Malle clones the same background so when he cuts between the two characters, the world behind them seems artificial and static (like cheap Hanna-Barbera cartoons that reuse the same backdrops over and over again).

One of the things that Queneau excels at is morbid understatement. He can describe awful things in his books—be they violent, sexual, or some combination of the two—with disarmingly mundane language. In We Always Treat Women Too Well, he calmly describes the female protagonist Gertie Girdle being “surmounted” by a headless corpse after her lover/hostage-taker gets his head blown off in mid-coitus. It’s a trick he takes from Voltaire, who packs his masterpiece Candide with similar dark moments of polite obfuscation. 

That kind of dispassionate commentary is hard to pull off visually, especially in a comedy, without immediately killing the vibe. But Malle finds a way to do it in the mussels scene. When asked about her father, Zazie goes off on a monologue about her traumatic backstory with cheerful indifference. She hungrily sucks up mussels while talking at length about the night where her father supposedly molested her and then was murdered in front of her by her mother, who got off scot-free. I say supposedly because we don’t actually hear what she says: Malle speeds her voice up like a chipmunk, running it in reverse and covering up what she says with the loud percussion of empty mussel ships clattering on her plate. Every once in a while a snippet of clear dialogue comes out, but it immediately gets overshadowed by Trouscaillon’s reaction shots—pouring sweat, clearly flustered, as a crowd of bystanders gathers around to hear Zazie’s story.

The chase sequence that immediately follows, in which Zazie and Trouscaillon transform Paris into a live action Spy vs. Spy comic, is the film’s crown jewel. It’s madcap cartoon shenanigans: exploding dynamite, chase reversals, hyper-fast running, multiple Zazie clones and dummies popping up to distract Trouscaillon and play keep away. 

Like the rest of this film, this sequence honors one of the distinguishing characteristics of classic cartoons. Cartoons are often labeled as anarchic, but that’s not quite right. There are laws that govern them, but what they usually lack is consequences. Nothing ever really sticks. A shotgun blast to the face produces scorch marks that quickly wear off; a kangaroo punch to the jaw might make your teeth plink like piano keys and tumble off your gums, but they’ll be back in place for the next scene. Death has no jurisdiction in an animated universe. So it goes with Zazie’s world; the only thing that isn’t undone by its end is the death of Madame Mouaque—mourned by absolutely no one.

While the chase scene between Zazie and Trouscaillon marks an early high point in the film, it’s in the climax of the film where it descends into sheer anarchy. Zazie, tuckered out and still fuming over missing the metro, goes to her unkoo Gabriel’s show at the cabaret. Afterwards, every character of note (sans Albertine and Touscaillon) gathers at a nearby cafe to celebrate the show. 

Bored out of her mind, the frustrated Zazie falls asleep on the table. While she sleeps, chaos erupts around her. The waitstaff go to war with Gabriel’s party, which turns into an all-out slugfest. Sauerkraut goes flying everywhere, Madame Moaque gets waterboarded, Turandot’s parrot gets blasted with water and is turned into a dog. The violence expands beyond the brawlers into the film’s set: walls are smashed and torn to pieces, the fight spilling out into different sets from the film. Touiscallon and a horde of police officers and soldiers arrive, escalating the brawl to such a high pitch that the fight breaks through the fourth wall and the characters begin assaulting the film crew themselves.

A similar conflict between Touscaillon and Gabriel’s friends happens in the book. But Malle blows it up into an apocalyptic fight that completely ruptures the divide between the film and reality itself. Zazie misses all of it. She even misses riding her beloved metro. The strike ends after the fight, and Albertine (now dressed in a masculine flight suit as “Albert”) scoops up her sleeping body from Gabriel and rides the metro to get her to the train station in time. So Zazie does technically end up getting what she wanted this whole time.

The film ends the same way as the book, with Zazie coming to in the arms of her mother as the train rolls out of Paris. Asked by her mum what she did today, Zazie says “I aged.” She says this straight into the camera, in a frame reminiscent of the bandit who unloads his six-shooter into the screen at the end of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. A classic cartoon needs a tagline to play it out, and “I aged” works just as well as a “That’s all, folks.”

Despite getting positive reviews when it came out, Zazie was a commercial bomb in France. Like the book it’s based on, though, the film has lost none of its charm and zany potency over the years. Watching it 60 years after its release, it still careens with a train-off-the-rails energy that few other films (regardless of age) can match. Every Zazie viewing feels like a brief train ride to some distant Narnia-like land where nothing means anything and everything is permitted.