2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I used to work for an encyclopedia company, some of whose workers answered the siren call of Microsoft and wafted to the Pacific Northwest to create the Encarta digital encyclopedia. A book about the creation of this product was published, and Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout who fooled us all into making him stratospherically wealthy, mused about why established encyclopedia publishers had not come up with such a product themselves. When certain conservative business models were proffered to him, his answer was said to be, “Oh, they have finite greed.”
Since at least the late 1970s, the world economy has been convulsed by corporate mergers, hostile takeovers, downsizings of epic proportions, entire industries made obsolete, and a flood of jobs taken from higher-paid workers in developed countries and moved to less expensive quarters in the Third World—partly in the name of true progress in production, but primarily because, like Bill Gates, corporate moguls and shareholders didn’t understand the concept of finite greed. To this world, Donald E. Westlake applied his considerable gifts for cynicism and comedy and wrote The Ax, a tale of a downsized executive who decides the only way he can land a job worthy of supporting not only his lifestyle but his inflated identity is to create the vacancy himself and eliminate all of the competition for it through the industrious application of a pistol.
Now we have a film of this disturbing novel by a director best known for disturbing his audiences with highly charged political thrillers. He seems a somewhat unlikely choice for this darkly comic crime story, but Costa-Gavras’ outrage at injustice actually brings the necessary horror to a story that is farcical but certainly no joke.
The action has moved from the United States to France, but there certainly is no paucity of well-to-do neighborhoods chock-a-block full of “resting” executives trying to keep up appearances. A newly minted reject is Bruno Davert (José Garcia) a 20-year veteran of the papermaking industry whose company not only downsized but also moved to Romania. At first, he isn’t thrown at all. He has 18 months’ severance pay and stock options he can cash in. A man of his experience and abilities is sure to find another job in no time.
Nine months later, Bruno is still stuffing resumes and headshots into envelopes in the family living room. His sweet and supportive wife Marlene (Karin Viard) suggests that maybe he should have a new photo taken, one that isn’t so… So what? Bruno bellows. Marlene tries to be diplomatic, but the photo is sour. What might once have been a content and vaguely smug face is now stony, angry, resentful. The privileged who lose their entitlements are a fearsome breed indeed, and Bruno will prove just how fearsome as the film progresses.
Bruno’s son Maxime (Geordy Monfils) hands his father a CD from a trade journal, redundantly named Papier and Paper. Bruno watches as Raymond Machefer (Olivier Gourmet), a man who has the position he desires, leads viewers on a little tour of the nirvana that is Arcadia Paper. Bruno hatches a plot to kill Machefer and land his job. But first he must find out what other out-of-work executives might be his rivals and eliminate them. He opens a post office box and places an ad in the journal soliciting applications for a job very much like the one he wants. He then sorts through the resumes and headshots and finds five men who could pose a threat. He rummages through his father’s World War II memorabilia and comes up with his captured German luger and a box of ammunition. His practice shooting leaves him sore-shouldered from the recoil and discouraged that he cannot seem to hit the broadside of barn door at close range.
Still, when it comes time to hand out his first pink slip, it goes surprisingly well. He simply drives up to the mailbox as his first rival goes to see if he’s gotten any job leads and calls out the man’s name. The man approaches Bruno’s car and bang. One down.
His second job isn’t quite as easy. As he sits in his car awaiting his next victim’s arrival at his mailbox, a crazed woman on a bicycle screams at him to leave them alone. “You’ll kill her father” she cries in what seems to Bruno to be a prescient moment. How has he given himself away? She enters his car and finds his gun on the passenger seat. A struggle ensues, and he accidentally shoots her through the neck. When her husband comes out to see what all the commotion is about, Bruno shoots him dead.
Sure he will be arrested, Bruno returns home and dresses in a suit and tie for dinner. He has to look his best for the television cameras. When the news comes on, Bruno hears that the story of the double murder is the top story. Apparently, his victims’ daughter had been having an affair with an older man who has been brought in for questioning. Fearing that if he does not confess, an innocent man will be put on trial, Bruno determines to turn himself in. At just that moment, the television camera catches the man leaping to his death from a top-floor window. Even when Bruno’s instincts are to do the right thing, fate seems to ensure that his corruption will be complete.
The characters in this film are stereotypes imbued with such earnest conviction that we are attracted and repulsed by their very real personalities at the same time. Maxime turns out to be part of a major software theft ring. Marlene turns to a therapist to get Bruno to start confiding in her and is satisfied with their progress, though she never ever finds out she is living with a killer. The police who have discerned a pattern that spells danger for paper executives visit Bruno, not to investigate him, but to warn him. Inspecteur Kesler (Thierry Hancisse) confides, “We always get them” but of course, they don’t.
Only Gérard Hutchinson (Ulrich Tukur), a paper executive working in a men’s wear shop since he lost his job five years before, presents us with a sympathetic view of the discarded white-collar worker. He sits with Bruno in a fitting room and pours out his sadness as Bruno ridiculously looks for an opportunity to stab him with something that looks like a machete. Perhaps Bruno has been touched by his story, but he doesn’t waste much time on sentiment. Sparing Hutchinson’s life, he dismisses the man as a loser who is no competition for him.
Garcia does a superlative job of portraying a driven man who may look like a psychopath given the extreme actions he has chosen, but who would be rewarded for his determination in the work world without a thought that there might be something wrong with his character. The pathology of the world Bruno inhabits is underlined by scenes of billboards and sides of trucks that have wordless images of women in slutty lingerie and jewels being held up as the icons of the consumer culture. As conceived by Costa-Gavras, we can only laugh if this is the gold ring men like Bruno are willing to kill for. For what else can greed be good?
In the end, we are left with the (a)moral of the story: just like Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears of his giant machine in Modern Times, we’ll all get chewed up and spit out. When it comes to comedies with bite, they don’t make ’em much better than this one.