Dir. Costa-Gavras.Fr-Bel-Sp. 2005. 122mins.
A wickedly black comedytailored in a slick thriller style, The Ax marks a welcome return tocomedy for Greek auteur Costa-Gavras after his 1986 feature Family Business.Powered by an outstanding lead performance from Jose Garcia, the film hasalready proven itself at home in France.
Prospects in other Europeanterritories are assured but a US distributor may question the running time andwhat might be perceived as amoral tone - as one audience member complained tothe director at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere: "He gets away with murder."
Based on the novel by USauthor Donald Westlake, the story is transplanted from the US to France andfollows Bruno Davert (Garcia), a paper industry engineer who has lost his jobto consolidation and outsourcing, a topical issue on the continent today wheremanufacturing jobs are being exported to eastern Europe, just as poorer USstates use the promise of lower wage work-force to lure companies.
The film begins with atightly-shot murder sequence worthy of the finest thriller as the perpetratorreturns to his lair, clearly sickened by his work. He pulls out a voicerecorder and begins his confession. "I thought it would get easier'" So beginsthe long flashback.
Bruno is a good family man,with a smart and engaged wife (Viard) and two teenage children. Costa-Gavrashas cast the film exquisitely, for its strength comes from this absolutelyconvincing family unit and its gradual breakdown.
Garcia, the consummateeveryman, captures the spirit of a man who has exhausted his reserves ofconfidence and is growing increasingly desperate to regain a foothold on thecareer ladder. Thus the quotidian suburban existence -especially when the boygets in trouble with the law - casts in sharper contrast Bruno's secret life asan assassin.
Having seen a promotionalvideo of a paper company and witnessed the lacklustre on-camera performance ofthe company director, Machefer (Gourment), Bruno is convinced he could do abetter job if there was a sudden "vacancy". But when he pauses to consider allthe other victims of cutbacks throughout the paper industry, he realizes hewould face stiff competition. So begins a murder spree perhaps unique incinema.
The film is more than itsplot. The nuanced direction and screenplay (by Costa-Gavras and Jean-ClaudeGrumberg, their third collaboration) raise it above the genre picture at itsheart. Foreshadowing is subtle and multi-pronged, as when the son first showshis father Machefer on television and then turns the TV off when his mothercalls him to dinner. Bruno asks for another look. "Here," says the boy, whowatches too much television for his own good, "I'll zap him back to life."
This detachment fromhumanity is also reflected in the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic lingerieadvertisement that pepper the background of the outdoor scenes, and theaspirational life-style slogans that abound on trucks, billboards andmagazines.
Conversely, the film refusesto let the audience forget that the victims are people; Bruno - not being aprofessional - often stumbles into them in the course of stalking them and endsup having to talk to them, sometimes hefting a broad knife behind his back.This ratchets up Bruno's agony and both the comic and dramatic tension. If thefilm feels a bit long by a murder or two, the overall effect is strengthened byan almost theatrical open-ended conclusion. Bruno may have got what he wantsbut there may be other Brunos waiting to get what's his.
Prod cos: KG Prods, Les Films Du Fleuve, RTBF, France 2 Cinema,Scope Invest, Wanda Vision
Int'l sales: StudioCanal
Fr dist: Mars Dist
Prod: Michele Ray-Gavras
Cine: Patrick Blossier
Scr: Costa-Gavras, Jean-ClaudeGrumberg, from the novel by Donald Westlake
Ed: Yannick Kergoat
Prod des: Laurent Deroo
Music: Armand Amar
Main cast: Jose Garcia, KarinViard, Olivier Gourment, Ulrich Tukur, Yvon Back