Time Out New York Project: Issue #702, March 12-18, 2009
Dir. Costa-Gavras. 1969. N/R. 127mins. In French, with subtitles. Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Forty years removed from its moment, Z still packs a punch, though its impressively whirlwind approach to action and exposition now seems more the product of editor Françoise Bonnot and cinematographer Raoul Coutard than director Costa-Gavras. From the opening scene, a frenetic pace is set, the camera effortlessly bobbing and weaving around a lecture hall while a boorish general (Pierre Dux) decries the many “isms” infecting society. The tone is broadly satiric, even though the narrative—an adaptation of a documentary novel by Vasilis Vasilikos, itself inspired by the assassination of Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis—is based in cold, hard fact.
The Algerian locales, standing in for a never-identified European city, add some provocative, echo-chamber resonance, while the carnivalesque ideological types who inhabit the film’s re-created space tend to come off as Mad magazine parodies of themselves. This is perfectly appropriate in certain cases (Trintignant’s shades-bedecked lawyer, as coolly Zen as a Jean-Pierre Melville protagonist) and damn near offensive in others (Marcel Bozzuffi’s swish of an assassin). The casual treatment of homosexuality as a villainous pathology is hardly unusual in films of this era: Trintignant was only one year away from paralleling man-man love with fascism in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. But though it’s a relatively small and reportedly true part of Z’s larger, bracing statement against an oppressive regime, this concession to cheap psychological realism still manages to stand out and stick in the craw. Z is indeed, per Pauline Kael’s prominent quote in the press materials, “intolerably exciting.” It’s also, in a good many ways, intolerable.—Keith Uhlich