Careering

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Caught up with LE COUPERET ~ Costa-Gavras adapts Donald Westlake, translating the blackly comic crime novel The Ax to French soil with a good bit more fidelity than Godard used when casting Anna Karena as Parker in MADE IN USA, a version of Westlake’s The Jugger. The film is faithful enough to win a came from the author. This is followed by a more surprising cameo by John Landis. I realized Landis must have had a cameo by C-G in one of his films, and the favour was being returned — then I looked into it and realized C-G has been in THREE John Landis films. It’s an obsession.

Anyway, Costa-Gavras was kind about my film with Paul Duane, NATAN, so now I have to explain that, in the interests of full disclosure. I’m not biased in favour of the genius auteur of Z and MISSING…

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The trick for C-G, when he’s pursuing his usual calling as a maker of political thrillers, is to find a thriller narrative which can serve as a way into an important subject without cheapening the issues or getting weighed down by them. LE COUPERET is a razor-sharp, fleet-footed black comedy murder tale about the economy — Jose Garcia loses his job as a paper company exec due to downsizing and outsourcing. After two years unemployment, he’s acquired an angry edge and is no longer the kind of person companies want to hire. Also, his marriage is breaking up and he’s on the verge of losing his house. Curious about the competition, he plays a fake job ad and sifts through the applicants, deciding that there are only five people out there for him to worry about. Bingo — all he has to do is assassinate those five men and one job-holder, and he can get hired.

We might not believe anybody would do this, but we can’t escape the logic that this is the kind of behaviour society actively encourages. The hero is smart enough to know that the innocents he’s bumping off are not his true enemy, but the people who have caused his problems are beyond his reach and punishing them wouldn’t improve his current position at all. It’s the people with the same problems as himself, people he can easily empathize with, who have to go.

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This is a very black comedy indeed, played more or less completely straight and all the more wickedly amusing for it. The film-making is deft, rapid-fire and intense, with lots of tight shots, POVs that reframe rapidly as our man calculates each perilous situation, and, courtesy of the masterful Westlake, no shortage of tense situations to get that camera jittering.

Costa-Gavras adds only one flourish of caricature, decorating the streets with a series of chic, sexy, slightly sinister advertisements for unnamed products, hinting at the world of consumer pleasure the hero is no longer part of. Some of these images are mildly murderous in themselves ~

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But they’re used subtly enough (OK, maybe not that one) to make us initially unsure if they were set dressing or actual found material. Only their slow, deadpan accretion tips the filmmaker’s hand. I thought of THEY LIVE.

Tip-top stuff. Dynamic, tight as a drum, dryly hilarious and meaningful to boot. My shame at not having seen that many non-US Costa-Gavras films is mitigated at my glee at having so many to look forward to.

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6 Responses to “Careering”

  1. I’m crazy about Made in USA. It’s the best film of Godard’s first period and the most political in that it was inspired by the Ben Barkha kidnapping and assassination and depicts the “parallel police” operating then and now quite tellingly.

    It was made, BTW, when Rivette’s Le Religieuse was banned and producer Georges de Beauregard needed something quick to fill his booking commitments. Godard was shooting 2 ou 3 Choses que Je sais d’elle at the time — and thus made Made in USA,/I> along with it simultaneously. I have always dreamed of a screening of both films together — alternating reels a la Faulkner’s “Wild Palms.”

  2. And Beauregard neglected to clear the rights, which had the effect, after the dust had settled, or Westlake himself owning the US distribution rights.

  3. Yep. So it was in limbo for a great many years. The Criterion DVD is perfect.

    When it played the New York Film Festival in 1968 I got into a big argument over it with Henry Geldzahler. He objected to the way Godard utilized for in it, turning film into painting. He felt they should remain separate Arts. I of course did not.

  4. It’s a strangely puritanical line to take, “Never the twain shall meet.”

    Westlake hated the book, so how he felt about its unauthorized and extreme transformation is hard to guess. I like the novel, but it’s one of few where Parker really crosses the line and hurts a basically innocent person for his own self-protection. We always know he’s capable of it, but Westlake/Stark usually arranges it so he doesn’t have to be that bad.

  5. The Parker series is less like a group of novels but one long novel divided into chapters. Anna Karina is as splendid in Made in USA as Lee Marvin is in Point Blank

  6. One long novel that will remain forever unfinished. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but I’d love to know where he was taking it. There was a smart cop closing in on Parker for the past few books…

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