Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Zazie in the Metro (1960): the Girl who Knew too much

Zazie is a ten-year-old girl who comes for a weekend from some provincial town to the one and only Paris, that messy metropole. That's how it's depicted by Louis Malle: heavy traffic due to the Metro strike, full of crazy tourists and weirdos, a city where cabaret, sightseeing and gourmet food coincides, a city where everything is possible.

Zazie in the Metro though was not burn straight on celluloid, but on paper, like many other brilliant things. Raymond Queneau felt like being naughty with the French language for once and wrote a book that "made the whole of France laugh,” acccording to Jean-Paul Rappeneau.

Zazie, the book, commences with the following sentence in the original text: "Doukipudonktan, se demanda Gabriel excédé." and no, I won't leave you without a translation: "Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated." (thanks to bibliolathas). As you see, the very first word is not a word by any means, it's a germanic construction of many words put together and written in their phonetic equivalent. In French, the right way to write this would be: D'où qu'il pue donc tant?. The example means to give you an idea on the playfulness, cheekiness  and wit it takes to write and read such a book. Because, reciting crazy, absurd stories is sometimes not enough; the language you choose as your vehicle plays its role, and, if being brilliant and unique is your aim, you're gonna have to fiddle with it at a certain extent and by no means take it at face value. Newspapers, schoolbooks and other comme il faut hardcovers are using a language you are not supposed to even hint at in everyday life, or you risk to sound like a lawyer.

With revolution in mind -many called the book and the film revolutionary indeed- Queneau brings a new breeze with his Zazie, meaning the girl and the book together. A book " packed full of word play and phonetic games" and an adolescent girl that knows too much of the adult world, which makes her game. Malle decided to cut some years off, and his version of Zazie is only ten, still foul-mouthed (shockingly so, a fact that enraged parents the moment they realised they were not watching a children's film and dragged their innocent ones out of the cinema). And fearless. She goes out to meet strangers. Wines and dines with them. She tackles topics such as homosessuality, extra-marital affairs, passion-driven homicide and god knows in the end if any of her stories are true or not. It may be that the author wanted to transform himself into a little girl and, naturally, a little girl can only know too much if she carries the brain of a brainy adult in her coiffed a la garcon head.

Unfortunately, the moving image is in my opinion a means of communication too direct and excessively linked to entertainment, which makes it unable to reach the depth of writing when targeting a mainstream audience. This may or may not be true, but I see it as the main reason for which Zazie, the film was not so well received, or better was seen as a "curiosity and a stylistic exercise", whereas it was only trying to convey the surreal atmosphere that Queneau created with his imaginative use of language and humoristic approach of the notion "a weekend in Paris". In any case, probably Malle could have tried more to revolutionize cinema, probably he tried too hard already, using jump-cuts a bit before Breathless and breaking cinema rules and conventions in the very beginning of the sixties.

In the bottom line, all I'm trying to do is spin around the question: Why is Zazie dans le Metro, the book, funnier and more enjoyable than its cinematic counterpart? Is it because filmic language was not mature yet in the sixties? Is the filmic language more mature right now? Could somebody find a way to do an adaptation that wouldn't seem a bit silly, no matter how fresh it may seem even today? Cause, I personally never made it to the end the first time I tried to watch the film on my desktop years ago -I do have to acknowledge the funniest scene ever, the mussels-eating-, and now that I made it to the end on the big screen I have to say I was quasi-bored and was on the verge of a headache. Blame the second on the monstrous-sized speakers surrounding me (I was unfortunate enough to sit on the first row of open-air cinema arrangement).

Apart from the theoretical nagging, I was the happiest viewer of the the "revolutionary" screening chosen by the lovely people on the 3rd Athens Open Air Film Festival that runs from June till September and turns public squares, porches and other open spaces downtown into cinema corners. It features classics, enhancing them with free beer and free entry.

* Read the short essay on Zazie by Ginette Vincendeau, my beloved uni mentor, she probably says it better than me.

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