Filmmaker Firsts: Costa-Gavras

#23: Z (1969) – dir. Costa-Gavras

Political dramas are not usually among my preferred types of films to watch. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that I did not love the film Z, directed by the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras (b. 1933) as much as the Academy Awards did at the 1970 ceremony. The film won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (representing Algeria) and Best Film Editing (by Françoise Bonnot) and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprún). The film starts off slowly, even though Bonnot’s editing and Raoul Coutard’s camerawork are impressive. It is not until a crucial act of violence happens at a political rally that the film gains momentum, although it is not until nearly an hour into the film, when Jean-Louis Trintignant’s role surpasses Montand’s as the main one, that things really take off.

Yves Montand has top billing because of his star status in international cinema, but he has very little screen time and his character hardly develops at all. For me, a better Montand performance from the same era is found in Vincente Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), which is a nutty movie with a distinct lack of chemistry between Montand and Barbra Streisand, but at least Monsieur M. and Babs are in fine voice.

Jean-Louis Trintignant gives a fine performance as the nameless judge who insists on following the letter of the law to determine culpability for Z’s government-aided political assassins, no matter how many bigwigs he brings down in the process. The dark glasses that the judge wears in nearly every shot that he is in, even though all of his scenes are indoors, are a memorable detail. For his work Trintignant received the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the only time he won such an honor from that organization.

Jacques Perrin, who was also one of Z’s two Best Picture Oscar nominees (he was one of the delegate producers), plays a photojournalist – another unnamed character – whose pictures help capture the men responsible for the film’s heinously violent acts. Perrin worked with well-known directors in the 1960s and 70s (Henri-Georges Clouzot, Valerio Zurlini, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy) but he has never really had the kind of worldwide acclaim that Montand and, eventually, Trintignant achieved. I’m not sure why; he has a very likeable presence, not only in Z but in the excellent films Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore) and The Chorus (2004, dir. Christophe Barratier) too. Perrin is not the only talented French supporting actor in Costa-Gavras’s production; Jean Dasté, who starred in the Jean Vigo classics Zero for Conduct (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), has a small role as an informant who helps Trintignant in his mission to bring down the corrupt government.

There are not many actresses with sizable roles in Z. The only actress who has multiple scenes in which to emote, despite a fairly small amount of screen time, is Irene Papas, who plays Yves Montand’s wife. Magali Noël makes a nice appearance as the firecracker sister of Georges Géret’s character and Clotilde Joano has a mostly silent role as some kind of assistant or secretary in Montand’s political circle, but Papas has real gravitas, even without much dialogue. Her expressive face speaks for her. If you want to see another of her effective performances from much more recently, watch this scene from Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (2003). It consists of Papas, Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli and John Malkovich sitting at a table in the dining hall on a cruise ship and just talking. It’s quite enjoyable. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not yet sure what I think of Costa-Gavras as a director, but with Z he knew enough to cast capable actors.

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One thought on “Filmmaker Firsts: Costa-Gavras

  1. Pingback: Vive le Trintignant! | The Iron Cupcake

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