I'm still toiling over my piece on Herzog's Nosferatu and how it relates to my thoughts on adapting Dracula for the screen, so in the mean time, I thought I'd post my introductory notes for the screening we did Christmas '08 of Red Balloon/White Mane & Zazie Dans Le Metro.
THE RED BALLOON/WHITE MANE & ZAZIE DANS LE METRO
Dir: Albert Lamorisse & Louis Malle
A perfect pairing of films that show the Paris of the past, a Paris that today exists largely in our minds. The films are also charming, funny takes on childhood.
THE RED BALLOON is in many ways a perfect film. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea I grant you, but it is a perfectly formed glittering gem of a film. Its simplicity, its purity, its elegance and heartfelt emotion, remind me of the short films of Buster Keaton. It takes a simple visual premise – a boy finds a red balloon on his way to school one morning – and builds on it to a finale that is both wonderful and inevitable. It also happens to be beautifully shot. The opening image looking down a cobbled street, out across a vista of the city is ravishing, and sets up exactly the feel of the film before the story proper has even begun.
The way the story builds directly and without fuss, with no asides, no meandering, to its conclusion, and then stops… makes for a film that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and leaves you with a smile.
As a result, I have very high hopes for Lamorisse’s later film WHITE MANE, which I have purposefully avoided seeing until now. Hopefully it will be just as wonderful. It has an awful lot to live up to. But its reputation is strong. We’ll find out together… [NB: I've seen it since, and it lived up to The Red Balloon, go out and buy them now - your dvd collcetion needs them, and if you've got children you owe it to them].
ZAZIE DANS LE METRO meanwhile, sticks out like a sore thumb on the filmography of director Louis Malle, and I really like it. Being no great fan of his other films, I’m shocked that he has so rarely dabbled in this area. The film is bright and freewheeling, iconoclastic and absurd. At any moment, it feels like it might burst into song, so light is its touch. It doesn’t all hang together, and there are moments when it indulges in the kind of excessive uses of fast motion and broad comedy that represent French comedy at its worst (Jacques Tati when he’d stopped being funny – or the kind of thing you might expect to see Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer parody). But it gets away with it because it doesn’t seem to care, and because the central performers are so damn likeable, the style so fresh and willing to please. There’s more than a touch of Richard Lester here (though less controlled, and perhaps more scattershot). Catherine Demongeot as Zazie and a youthful Philippe Noiret as her Uncle, carry the film, and the audience with them, no matter where it goes. Zazie’s gap toothed grin and petulance, and Noiret’s world weary charm are so endearing that you cannot help but forgive the films excesses, and the fact that it doesn’t quite hold together.
As a children’s film, it fails almost completely, by making reference to far too many things that just won’t interest them. But the bright colours, the ‘zaniness’ – if you’ll forgive the world – will likely keep them entertained. The script, by Jean Claude Carriere (who wrote a lot for Luis Bunuel and would later write the script for Cyrano with Gerard Depardieu), doesn’t quite come together. I’d love to find a copy of the book on which it’s based. For all its excesses, the film is so willing to try anything and go anywhere (even if Malle sometimes labours too hard at the comedy) that it’s impossible not to keep watching just to see where it might go. The sequence on the Eiffel tower seems astonishing, not only for the spectacle of it, but because as Zazie and her Uncle wander all over it, it looks like they might fall at any second. There’s no obvious place to hide a safety rope and yet they’re walking on the edge of girders and very nearly falling… the pre-CGI reality of the scene has the kind of giddy excitement of a Jackie Chan stunt sequence (or once again – Buster Keaton). It’s wonderful, and has you grinning and on the edge of your seat in fear, wondering how they did that, and praying they don’t fall.
Too little seen, it is a pleasure to have it make your aquaintence. It’s one big, silly, fluffy afternoon for all. A perfect antidote to the sometimes sluggish feel of Sunday afternoons. Hopefully you’ll leave it on a high.
I should add here that infact the film, while reminiscent of Richard Lester, actually predates his features films, though it's possible that his RUNNING, JUMPING, STANDING STILL film, showing at cinemas in 1959, may have been an influence.
For a great deal more on this wonderful, little seen film check out TIM LUCAS' BLOG POST on the film. It will tell you so much more than I can.
Truth be told, our christmas screening went a little bit awry and we didn't end up showing Zazie, only the Lamourisse films. So there's a screening of Zazie still to come. I wonder if we should double it with THE 400 BLOWS or HELP!...