Saturday, January 17, 2015

Anarchy and Imagination in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO

Tony Zhou suggested that his Twitter followers watch Louis Malle’s 1960 comedy Zazie dans le métro in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as a tribute to Paris. I’m so glad he did. Zazie is an endlessly fascinating film, subversive ultimately not for what it does show, but what it does not. By withholding information, Malle draws the viewer into his world, enlisting our imaginations as his co-directors and partners in crime.

One weekend, ten-year-old Zazie visits her uncle Gabriel in Paris. Gabriel, we quickly learn, spends his days immaculately turned out in men’s clothing, but dances every night away in women’s for a living. When Zazie goes to sleep, Gabriel’s “wife” Albertine takes his new dress out of the closet to put the finishing touches on it before his next performance. This dress stands in his apartment during scene after scene, reminding us of the performance we feel sure is soon to come.

Later, Gabriel and his fellow dancers rehearse while a man in a white wolf costume juggles torches.

After a funny sequence in which Gabriel almost bumps into him, this wolf-man remains in the background, always in frame even when our focus is not on him.

You just know something’s going to catch fire eventually.

Gabriel’s dress is like that torch-juggling wolf: its constant presence leads us to believe that we’ll eventually see him wearing it, just like the set must—and does—go up in flames.

Tantalizing hints and even wordplay increase this expectation. As Zazie’s uncle leaves the apartment, Albertine calls “Gabriel! You forgot your lipstick!” Gabriel—or Gabrielle? Wordplay abounds in Zazie, much of it unfortunately lost on me, the English subtitles flashing by so fast that I only just had time to notice that, for example, “obscenities” was spelled “obscelenities”—must less register that as a joke. The humor may not have translated, but I didn’t need subtitles to notice the ambiguity of Gabriel’s name—I could never be sure whether I was hearing the male or the female version. “Gabriel” was no doubt chosen for its gender neutrality, or rather its ability to move easily between genders or gender presentations, just like Gabriel himself.

We don’t see Gabriel perform that night. Malle teases us into thinking we’re about to: after Albertine calls “You forgot your lipstick!,” an orangey-red spotlight snaps on and and jaunty jazz music starts to play. Malle subverts our expectations, however, cutting not to the club but Zazie in the bathroom the next morning. That day, events conspire to make Gabril late to rehearsal. Tension mounts as he makes his way through the clogged Parisian street (the métro workers are on strike)—and as we, the audience, wait for the moment when he will finally take the stage. Surely the whole film is building toward that moment—isn’t it?

When Gabriel invites his friends to come see the show, we think, This is it! The big one! The one we’ve all been waiting for! Albertine brings Gabriel his dress—he takes it out of the box—a voice shouts “Gabriel, you’re on!”—and then Malle cuts to Gabriel’s empty dressing room, in which he confines us, Trouscaillon, Albertina, and Zazie for the duration of Gabriel’s performance. The camera moves adroitly around the room, but never leaves it. Somewhere out there, Gabriel is dancing, and we’re not allowed to watch. Spanish-sounding music, cheers, and applause filter through the walls; every time Albertine opens the dressing room door, it gets louder for a moment, taunting us with what we by now realize we’re never going to see.

Zazie is about not only the unseen, but the unheard. Several times, Malle turns down or speeds up the sound, muting crucial dialogue or turning it into gibberish. This first time this happens, Trouscaillon is chasing Zazie through the streets. When she calls for help, strangers crowd in a circle around her, asking eagerly, What did he do? What did he say? Zazie whispers something into one of their ears; that person whispers it to the person next to them, and that person to the person next to them, in a dirty game of telephone. Eyes widen all around Zazie: 360 degrees of shock. Later, Zazie and Trouscaillon eat french fries and mussels in a restaurant as Zazie tells him how her mother killed her father with a hatchet. It all went down when she returned from soccer to find her father alone in the house, drunk. “He starts kissing me. Why not? He’s my Pop.” And then bam, Zazie throws an empty mussel shell onto her plate, splattering the pedophile with juice—and the sound speeds up so we can no longer tell what she’s saying. As Zazie chatters on, she throws down mussel after mussel, the crash as they hit the plate combining with a series of abrupt, startling cuts to suggest the blows of the hatchet falling on her father’s head. (Every time a shell hits the plate, juice splashes Trouscaillon’s immaculate outfit and he cowers away, eventually ending up under the table. Zazie, like her mother, is a formidable adversary.) Malle heavily implies that Zazie’s mother walked in on her father molesting her—but because of the way Malle distorts sound in this scene, we must imagine this for ourselves.

Imagination, I think, is the key to this whole film: imagination, responsibility, and even culpability. We never see Gabriel in his dress—but we see the dress and we see Gabriel. By strategically giving and withholding information, Malle not only allows but encourages his audience to put two and two together, picturing Gabriel’s performance for ourselves. We even see Albertine modeling this in Gabriel’s dressing room twice during his performance:

Time #1
Time #2

Because Gabriel's dance takes place not on the screen, but in our minds, we actively participate in its creation: we are at once dancer and dance floor, the act and the space in which the act unfolds.

Zazie climaxes with an afterparty in a restaurant that quickly spins out of control. In the beginning, the room looks like this:

but soon enough hell breaks loose: glasses are smashed, food is thrown, fistfights break out left and right, and flimsy walls come crashing down. White-clothed waiters, enforcers of order and normalcy, pop into frame and try to get things under control, but they’re no match for Zazie, Gabriel, and the anarchy they represent. The room ends up looking like:

...that. And so, at least in some small way, does the viewer’s mind. By encouraging us to fill in his audio-visual blanks, Malle makes our minds an extension of his screen—they become, if you will, the restaurant from the end of the film: windows shattered, walls knocked down, and law enforcement unconscious on the floor. Zazie, at one point, declares, “To hell with the not-wilds”; we walk out of this film a little more wild inside than when we walked in. 

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