Paris on the run: ‘Zazie dans le Metro’ is an exhilarating, frenetic adventure

Zazie dans le Metro/1960/NEF, Pathé/89 min.

Michael Wilmington

Criterion is rereleasing ‘Zazie’ and while it really isn’t noir I couldn’t resist running this review from critic Michael Wilmington. The heroine is a tough little girl, director Louis Malle was a skilled noir storyteller (“Elevator to the Gallows” from 1958) and I still have Paris on the brain.

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). Once they hit Paris, her maman departs with her lover and leaves Zazie – a 12-year-old French gamine (played by the delightfully brash Catherine Demongeot) – to spend the day with her 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.

Oncle Gabriel, in fact, is a drag entertainer at a local restaurant-cabaret, where his size and manner recall that classic description of Oliver Hardy: “elephant on tippy-toe.” And 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, Zazie has one big wish for her Parisian trip: She wants to 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 misidentifies landmarks (The Church of St. Vincent de Paul becomes the Pantheon) and keeps getting caught in the traffic jams that the metro strike has caused.

Soon, however, Zazie breaks away and spends the day racing through the City of Light, picking up all sorts of strange new friends and enemies. In the course of Zazie’s spree, she turns Paris into a huge playground and the Eiffel Tower, in one astonishing scene, into the ultimate jungle gym. At the end, we see what looks like the beginning of a café revolution (Malle was ever the gentleman leftist).

“Zazie dans le Metro” was the movie that made 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 make a star of Demongeot. She acted in only three more films, and one of them was a cameo as Zazie, for Jean-Luc Godard‘s “A Woman is a Woman.” But it gave her something more precious: It made her immortal. More