(Girl and a city: Zazie, beautifully incarnated by Catherine Demongeot, unleashed. Image courtesy of Criteron and Orange Media.)
Louis Malle (1932-1995) stands outside any convenient film history. He made documentaries and features in France, India, the United States and Canada (his superb Atlantic City, from the John Guare script and featuring Burt Lancaster’s finest late career performance is considered the only artistic justification for the Canadian tax shelter period of the seventies and early eighties).
Contrary to rumor or false implication, Malle is not a New Wave director. He was younger than Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer. He and Truffaut were born about eight months apart. Born into a wealthy family, he briefly studied political science and public policy at the Sorbonne before making the shift to studying film at IDHEC.
His political and journalistic origins helped his early work as cameraman and journalist who worked as a correspondent in Thailand, Algeria and Vietnam. Though he never wrote criticism at Cahiers du cinema, he did possess an important standing with the Cahiers circle: he worked with Jacques Cousteau on the Palme d’Or-winner The Silent World. More importantly, he was a cameraman on Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle and he assisted the great Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped.
He was less formally audacious than the nouvelle vague directors; he shared with Truffaut an elastic and very malleable personality that helped make his films more accessible to non-French and mainstream audiences. His limitations were more apparent as well. Especially with the English language films, he was only as good as the material. Pretty Baby, Atlantic Alam City, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street are interesting and dynamic works, but Alamo Bay and Crackers are both shockingly inept.
When he was not trying to make masterpieces, his movies could be quite sensual and extremely enjoyable. (It doesn’t have much of a reputation, but I had a very pleasant time with Viva Maria on Netflix streaming recently.)
Criterion has just published an interesting one-two punch of separate Blu-ray discs of two Malle films: Zazie dans le metro (1960) and Black Moon (1975). I’d very much recommend the two accompanying essays by the writer Ginette Vincendeau. Zazie is, I think, one of the director’s three best films, with Fire Within and Atlantic City. (Truffaut wrote Malle a fan letter after seeing the film, and Godard gave the young actress who played the eponymous lead a brief appearance in A Woman is a Woman.)
The director and his collaborator Jean-Paul Rappeneau adapted the well-known novel by Raymond Queneau, much celebrated in France for its Joycean wordplay. The frenetic and madcap structure is certainly more anecdotal than linear, relating the loose and free form tale of the devilish and anarchic Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), who’s come to hang out with her uncle (Philippe Noiret) for a weekend in Paris while her mother spends time with a new lover.
I’d only seen the movie once before, a couple of years ago in a faded 16mm print. Even at ninety minutes, the movie’s pretty exhausting, almost too clever for its own good. They pack a lot into the film, and are not always able to satisfactorily resolve all the different pieces and wild tempo. What’s exciting is how the movie is ostensibly a sexual farce abetted by a rhyming visual slapstick that upends conventional bourgeois attitudes.
Malle’s most controversial decision was making the girl about four years or so younger in the movie. The imp is a force of nature who wreaks havoc on those who cross her path. Malle and his cinematographer Henri Raichi not only restrict the film space left to right, though up and down; they work in a very shallow depth of field, even in a lot of the musically inflected, Mack Sennett-style frenetic movements conceived horizontally, like in an epic traffic jam but also vertically, like a reverse zoom up and down the Eiffel Tower.
The joke of the title is that a workers’ strike has shut down the metro; so the action is all largely above ground. The riotous blend of color, movement and space is delirious and visually supple that lends the material a bracing unpredictability. It’s a very free film, unconcerned with plot or character motivation. The sexual implications of the material remain fairly shocking, even for the French, not only in an early scene where Zazie shocks several people at the start by suggesting she has fled her own violation.
Again, the characterization is not terribly complicated, Malle doesn’t spend much time interiorizing his subjects, but the blend of faces and bodies is always fresh and revealing (a couple of the actors play more than one part). Malle conjoins sexuality and role playing, and it pays its own glorious dividends. I especially enjoyed watching the beautiful Carla Marlier, who plays Noiret’s wife and has the Proustian name of Albertine. Noiret, too, has a solidity and size about him, but there’s a speed and alertness to his reactions and movements.
The tone is largely freewheeling and manic, but a menacing tone hangs over the proceedings. The movie makes repeated references to the Occupation and the moral slipperiness of Vichy. I got a lot of the in-jokes of fifties French cinema, but the political content is often beyond my comprehension, except if I understand it correctly, Malle is acknowledging the French capacity for fascism and military imperialism (the censors would not allow for references to Vietnam or Algeria) that Bunuel also touched on explicitly in his adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid.
Zazie seems very much a work of its time, but it has a freshness and moment to moment excitement that’s liberating and fun.
Black Moon is not nearly the artistic success. The default track of the Blu-ray is the English-language edition. (Unfortunately I didn’t have time to review the French language version.) This was my first experience with the film. (A recently struck print circulated the country just before the Criterion release, but I missed out a chance to catch it at Chicago’s Music Box.)
The movie’s an interesting failure, to my mind. I’m glad I finally had a chance to catch up with it, and I’ll certainly take a look at the French version. Malle supposedly prefers the English version. Language is purely secondary in this science fiction story about a guerilla war between the sexes, unfolding in a gothic countryside where a mysterious young woman (Cathryn Harrison) finds herself insinuated into the lives of a androgynous brother and sister (Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro) that makes the pairing in the Cocteau/Melville Les enfants terrible appear positively normal.
The high-definition transfer is welcome if for no other reason than the sharp reproduction of Sven Nykvist’s spellbinding imagery. Malle’s also more effective with the eerie, discordant soundtrack than the off-putting story that never quite gains any real traction or improves the impressively eerie opening.
Even so, both are welcome additions to my personal library that further prove that Louis Malle was not a revolutionary talent but certainly a gifted and compelling one.