Rendez-vous with French Cinema: Costa-Gavras’s East Is West
Costa-Gavras charged onto the world film scene in the early ’70s with a fusillade of angry, audacious, stylishly pulse-pounding political thrillers (The Confession, State of Siege, Special Section) that railed against persecution and injustice. His great, superbly thrilling Z, which Film Forum will screen March 13 to 26 in a new 35mm print, took on corrupt Greek officials, neo-fascist ideology, and brutal police-state tactics with an energetically edited, hard-to-track narrative based on events surrounding the 1963 assassination of real-life pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis. Shot by Godard’s ace DP, Raoul Coutard, Z has a restless verve and relentlessly urgent pace to match its revolutionary spirit. After winning the Cannes Jury Prize and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Costa-Gavras eased into a less strident and decidedly more commercial vein in the ’80s, while never retreating fully from the electrifying political content that first catapulted him to acclaim. There were issues-oriented noir-o-dramas like Missing, Hanna K., and Betrayed, but also The Music Box, a Joe Ezterhas–penned stinkbomb. His pace slowed a bit in the nineties, perhaps owing more to the vicissitudes of funding film productions in Europe than to Costa-Gavras’s flagging creative energy. Yet he still remains active, releasing a new film every three or four years.
Politics is flattened to the level of farce in Costa-Gavras’s latest feature, Eden Is West, about a hapless Greek immigrant’s sex-and-serendipity-spiced overland trek to France that’s screening as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous with French Cinema” series this week. Conceived as a light-hearted, picaresque tale, the film is an amalgamation of Homer, Voltaire, and Charlie Chaplin, an episodically structured ramble to the City of Lights centered on a mostly mute, bewildered young hero. Communicating mainly with his buggy eyes and exaggerated body movements, Riccardo Scamarchio (The Best of Youth) is Candide without a garden to cultivate, a too-handsome Tramp in a forbiddingly foreign land: the immigrant-as-comic-naif. Clearly, Costa-Gavras hopes to elicit our sympathy with slapstick and situational humor, while observing Elias’s plight as a penniless, undocumented alien through the lens of our common humanity.
After jettisoning from an Aegean cargo boat carrying scores of his fellow countrymen into Italian waters, Elias washes up (quite conveniently) at a nude beach resort, while his compatriots either drown or are nabbed by border police. Elias pilfers a staff uniform and sandals but arouses no suspicion, even when he rips a big hole in his kaftan. The girls flirt with him and bag-toting employees ask for his help. He fishes a blonde wig out of a shit-filled comode, joins a vigilante hunt for other illegals, and is forced to indulge the oral pleasure of a predatory, in-the-know hotel manager, flashing resentment and a cocked fist, but never uttering a word. Elias has better luck with a middle-aged Hamburg housewife (Juliane Koehler), who seduces, dresses, and feeds her Adonis boy-toy, and a cocky illusionist (Ulrich Tukur) who randomly picks Elias to be his assistant in a floor show, then vanishes in a tropical downpour, telling him, “If you ever come to Paris, look me up…”
Costa-Gavras, an emigrant to France from Greece himself, has called Eden Is West his “most personal film,” and there is a sense in which his drifter’s odyssey accurately mirrors the indignities and myriad dangers (deportation, ethnic hatred, indifference, isolation) of immigrant experience in modern Europe. Elias is targeted by skinheads and chased by police, scammed by a motorist and aggressively ogled by two gay German truckers. He enjoys the kindness of strangers, too, including a chic, well-heeled Parisian widow who implausibly scoops him off the Champs-Elysees and suits him up in her deceased husband’s finely tailored blazer. Through these encounters, Costa-Gavras identifies Elias with peasants, Gypsies, the urban homeless, and in one episode involving a factory strike, the exploited, mostly foreign working underclass of France. Yet the flashes of grim realism never quite harmonize with his protagonist’s peripatetic comic adventures or register very keenly on an emotional level; too much of the time, Elias’s sentimental journey just feels awkward and contrived. Costa-Gavras does manage to build pathos and poignancy near the end, though, when Elias finally reaches Paris, the promised land of wealth and opportunity, and finds his open-eyed optimism colored by bittersweet self-realization. Magic here is a conceit and a counterpoint to the disillusionment Elias has experienced on his road to Eden, with the dancing lights of the Eiffel Tower symbolizing the end point of his quest and the possibility of a fresh start. It is affecting, to a degree, but hardly the stuff of dreams.