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ZAZIE DANS LE METRO, out now on Criterion

Louis Malle’s riotous, wildly experimental ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960) is based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Queneau, a co-founder of Oulipo, the experimental writer’s group based on linguistic constraint. Zazie Dans le Metro has been called the funniest book ever written in, and about, the French language. It was enormously popular in France, but given the liberties it takes with language – inventing words, defying syntax and spelling – it was considered a risk for Malle to adapt, and its subsequent release was met with far less success than his two previous narrative films, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS and THE LOVERS, both released in 1958.

The basic story is this: Zazie, a precocious ten-year-old girl, comes to Paris to visit her uncle. All she wants to do is ride the metro, but the workers are on strike and she’s forced to make her way through the city on foot, in cars and buses in a stream-of-conscious slapstick style that provides endless opportunities to mock Parisian society and the French language. Queneau’s novel was so experimental it was considered unadaptable, but Malle’s equally daring cinematic experimentation is perhaps Queneau’s perfect film equivalent. Malle expresses his “dynamiting of language and his surrealist humor” by speeding up and slowing down the film, using jump cuts, rapid editing, sliding backgrounds, abrupt changes in scale and riotous splashes of color.

The book is currently number one on my to-do list, because if it is, in fact, the better, truer version of Malle’s madcap humor and zany adventures of a sophisticated, anarchic enfant terrible then it’ll surely be the most pleasurably challenging book of my summer.

ZAZIE DANS LE METRO is available now from the Criterion Collection.