Sunday, 12 January 2014

Unlikely Detectives: Z (spoilers)

This article is the first of a series on recent cinematic incarnations of a powerful form: the detective story. Of all genres, detective stories most successfully align an audience's desire with the search for truth, and all of the complications of that search. For this reason, perhaps, they're a personal favourite of mine. Most of the films discussed will be recent releases. The subject of this article is the biggest exception to that rule. A recent viewing brought it to mind, so it seemed foolish to quibble on the film's release date.


There's so many aspects to Costa-Gavras' 1969 political thriller that shine, both large and small. The fusion of verite techniques with the political-thriller is a winning combination, to date one of the more inspired uses of realist style in genre filmmaking. The film also marks one of the strongest examples of protest cinema using a popular form as the pill to deliver a political argument. With the political left under attack from a strong, unlikeable, opponent at the outset, our sympathy shifts towards them in the way it so often does towards the hero of a thriller. On top of the thriller element, when Z (Yves Montand) becomes the victim of an injustice that appears to go unpunished, the film uses a clever twist on the detective story to engage our desire that the truth come out. (More on this below.)

Among the smaller details, two stood out to these ears. Firstly, Z's speech prior to his death marks a brief appearance by Chion's acousmetre. He's no Wizard of Oz, but it is precisely those moments when Z's voice travels beyond his immediate audience, echoing in the streets over the heads of battle-ready demonstrators, that the conflict of ideologies is most clearly felt. This is a man whose life will be sustained more through symbolism than physical presence as the film progresses - and even before the assassination attempt, that physical presence already has powerful cinematic properties. Secondly, during the energising montage towards the film's close where military figures of increasing seniority are called before The Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Theodorakis' music steps forward in a commanding way we don't normally associate with realist style. As each military leader passes the media gauntlet, Theodorakis's bouzouki-led march gathers confidence, the snare drums surging. The powerful rat-a-tat of the snares lines up beautifully with the strokes of the typewriter documenting the damning testimonies. It's as metaphorical a use of synchresis as you'll find, and declares the colours of the filmmakers: a true Greek nationalism would see these men led to the wall rather than calling the shots.

Lawyer as Detective

Z provides a few twists on the detective form. Before the detective appears in the stern form of Jean-Louis Trintignant's Judge, the crime must occur, and it comes relatively late in the film. Here comes an added twist - even before the crime occurs, we know who is behind it. Many a detective story relies on a concealed opponent, but here we're given access to that information relatively early (arguably the opening scene), before the crime occurs. It's not a given the crime will occur, or how, so the first act is not lost time. It's firstly a tense depiction of political life as an opposition in an unsympathetic regime, the tension raised by our knowing that Z's opponents are the apparent keepers of the peace. Additionally the time allows the filmmakers to acquaint us the man who will be the target of the crime (and like Mr Wu, he will be talked about before he appears), impress his character upon an audience, depict something of his inner life, so that his loss is meaningful when it comes. We will never wonder in Z if all of what ensues is unnecessary: this man was worth the fuss.

So when the crime occurs and an investigation begins, we are in the privileged position of knowing more than the detective. We see through the convincing alibis that disguise guilty faces. The dramatic question is not the identity of the the opponent, but how our detective will uncover it given the forces of obfuscation marshalling against him. Those forces of obfuscation are plausible enough to satisfy most of the investigators. Added to this concern: we don't really know whether our detective wants to find the truth. Disguised by his glasses, his unemotional commitment to proper process seems more of the bureaucratic professionalism that we've already seen too much of in this film's civil service.* And even if he does want to uncover the truth, we've already seen that a genuine man can be killed if the powers-that-be will it.**

But an interesting pattern forms. For every potential channel of guilt that the Judge misses, he finds others. New clues satisfy our curiosity. While we know where the chain should lead, our point of view on the assassination disguised many of the processes that came to a head that night. The workings of the opponent are mysterious, hard to discern, and compelling to discover. In the process, the Judge deflects every gesture from above to minimise the implications his findings. We begin to see the advantages of this particular detective. One of the last pieces of character backstory to emerge is his family's connection to the political right. Well before then, we've observed a conscious strategy on his part to establish an apolitical line of evidence. His disregard for politically-motivated testimony greets witnesses left, right and centre.

We begin to wonder: perhaps this is the way a crime can be punished when a power structure shields the guilty? Z may have seemed like the man Greece needed, but perhaps it's really this man?*** A man with an impartial eye, uncompromised by passion. A detective who does more than uncover guilt, he does so in a way that the guilty can be punished on their own terms. He engages the prosecutor in all of us: it's not enough to know the guilty parties, a more practical chain of evidence must be assembled. Evidence mounts, achieving a momentum in the typewriter montage that is all the more exhilarating because of windy path the investigation has taken to build to it. The investigation feels unstoppable at this point.

So when the investigation is stopped, and most of the links in the chain of evidence - including the detective - are declared the likely victims of assassination in a postscript, the tragedy is all the more palpable. The writer's strategy in making us aware of the opponent from the outset becomes clear. Our desire has been that the truth behind Z's death be uncovered, and justice be served. Like watching twins separated at birth come close to reunion in a melodrama, the closer they get to each other, the more we want it. We've been worked up to the point where we really feel the drop. To have seen the investigation come so close, and still fail, is a bitter revelation. Two models of resistance have failed - one political (Z), one apolitical (the detective). Z is a rare detective story that transcends the usual hunt for a villain, touching the political epic and the epic tragedy in the process.

* Gary Oldman's Smiley in the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy harkens back to this figure.
** The title character of Michael Clayton is another recent detective who searches for an opponent the audience is already aware of.
*** The Judge is the third model man in this film. Z is the first. A hospitalised Everyman character is the second.

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