Thrillers are so serious. Grimly, absurdly, stuffily serious from time to time, and, as a matter of interest, Costa-Gavras’ most famous film, 1969’s Z, is a mighty serious affair as well. But it is also a Costa-Gavras film, which means the seriousness is as macabre and sinisterly naughty as humanly possible. Right from the beginning, with an opening credits montage set in a government meeting where the camera cuts around and into the debate, the kaleidoscope of off-kilter, anti-continuity angles instigates the meeting, presenting it as a cohesive jungle of governmental nonsense and anti-sensible incoherence. What they are talking about almost doesn’t matter, and indeed, the point is that no one seems to care or have any idea why they are actually having this conversation. Costa-Gavras is cutting deep, but the scene plays like a demented carnival as well as a serious inquiry. I could not describe it in any way that meaningfully elucidates the humor as anything other than the driest variety, but the sheer dissonance of the shots and the edits, coming when we least expect them and giving us absolutely no sense of what is occurring before us, is brutally funny. Dry and abrasive, but cripplingly funny.
Z is, from this point on, a quasi-absurdist fable of governmental subscription and suspicion, but its absurdism is of the lithest variety, where absurdism blends into realism and nonsense is part and parcel with the mundane everyday existence of unkempt, leering eyes wound up and ready to grab the whip. Something about Costa-Gavras’ incandescent, deliberately counter-intuitive but shockingly elemental and tactile camera sends the human mind into disarray like nothing else. Story aside, characters aside, the pure cinema of Z is lightning in a bottle thriller editing (by the inconceivably talented Francoise Bonnot) and camerawork (by Raoul Coutard) that disorients and glares right into the human eye with perplexing ambition and befuddlement. It is a pure form of excitement. Even if you remove anything of the context for it in the film, the gravity of the camerawork is furious and ready for battle.
As the film’s main character, quickly descending into a toxic whirlwind of decadent discontent, struggles to survive the tumbling city streets of an unnamed city, Costa-Gavras turns the screen into a metaphysical and literal battleground, with characters jutting into the frame at odd angles and invading the camera. Humans and vehicles drown the camera as we struggle to emerge amidst the pandemonium. Arguably no film since has invoked the anti-clarity and confusion of public activity and political and social disarray as vocally and as vividly as Z, a work where every shot and every cut is primed for discomfort.
And humor. Caustic humor, but the absurdity of the struggle becomes a dark and daring mockery of the political discontent and the government’s sheer frailty and inability to cope amidst the chaos. There is a shot of a crowd decimating the tattered remnants of a poster for Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that is, for those who are looking, unflinchingly brutal in its disruption of the old order of the world, and of the populist cinema it cherished, all being replaced with abject fear so unknown that it seems surreal. Tragic, but disconcertingly funny in a way that prefaces the sheer bedlam of beating characters will receive in Z. Costa-Gavras knows that this material is so uncomfortable, that the world may be lost, and that he has no idea who to blame or what to do about it, and he resorts to the only thing any person teetering on the edge of an insane world could do: to laugh at the absurdity of it, the curiosity of it, as a way to shield himself from it.
Here and everywhere, Z carves out a combative region of cinema that is also unrelinquishing in its moment-to-moment vivacity. So many thrillers approach heavy material like a solemn, heavy-handed funeral. Costa-Gavras dares us with a more ribald claim: that the rapture is upon us, and we don’t even have time for the funeral. People are too busy dealing with survival. Howard Hawks once said “and they’re moving pictures, let’s make ’em move”. Costa-Gavras appears to have taken that message to heart. In death, he finds a peculiar, disquieting brand of life trying to destroy itself as a revival and reminder that the ultimate truth of human life is its capacity to end itself. The hard, unilateral lines of the military, calm, stoic blue hats in tow, jutting into the avant-garde collage of disagreeing colors that make up the clothes of the general populace, is the defining image of the film, and a simple, elegant distillation of authoritarian order and popular chaos at odds.
With all this blissfully perfect filmmaking, you might forget that Z has a story and characters at all, or that it is a startling work of action filmmaking of the highest order. I mean, theme is well and good and all, but the sheer viciousness of the disconcerting nervous membranes that make up the framing and editing of Z would make it essential cinema as a decontextualized experience even if it was simply a work featuring circles and lines instead of people and places (if you want to convey the world in disarray, better make sure your film is left in tatters and shreds). But it is a film of people and places, and extremely provocative people and places at that. For a while, we follow a Deputy (Yves Montand) of a leftist political party preparing to give a speech advocating against the right wing popular government. We struggle with him as he ventures around the city in an attempt to perform his meager duty as an official when, suddenly, he is clubbed to death amidst the popular unrest and revelry. From there, we are tasked, along with an Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) with unearthing the truth behind the death, which, as it happens, was not the result of the leftist carnival the right paints in the media.
It was in fact the result of the insurgent right-wing forces taking to the streets and disguising themselves amidst the disorder of unrest, donning the hats of the public and slipping by unnoticed. Thus, Z emerges as a dissertation of sorts on the right-wing government of Greece (although the film itself is charitably non-specific in its setting) and its insidious mask of populism, with the right wing literally infesting the public and playing the leftist, public consciousness card as a buttress to its own crippling iron fist of order. Costa-Gavras plays with physical space by contrasting the crispness of the militial lines and the jungle-like masses of the public, even threatening to draw fangs of outrage against the public for its disorder. Yet he, like the right, is playing with our sense of disarray, beckoning us to shy away from the disorder of collective public outrage until he turns the tables and reveals that the true object of fear was not the left, but the right’s ability to don the visage of the left, their ability to frighten us with disorder and to use it as a salve for our woes. Z is a film about how order constructs chaos as the villain, when in fact order is creating chaos and using that chaos to its benefit all along.
In doing so, the film overturns our hypothetical desire to turn back to the corporate, ordered oppression of the old as a respite from the chaos, and in doing so, the film cautiously stakes out a rampage of its own in favor of chaos, and in favor of the left. It simply wants us to look over our shoulders and understand that the left we know might be a conservative wolf in sheep’s clothing. Costa-Gavras doesn’t solve the problem, but he does the noblest thing he can think of: he gives us his own filmic wolf to fight back. Humor, in the final moments of Z, as in the beginning, has never been so quietly devastating.