A few decades after ‘Z,’ Costa-Gavras is again the main attraction

In 1969, the San Francisco International Film Festival invited a little-known Greek director named Costa-Gavras to show his movie, “Z.” A work commitment prevented him from attending and seeing for himself the enthusiastic response to “Z,” which helped launch his now-classic political thriller in the United States.
As a belated show of gratitude, Costa-Gavras lent his considerable charm to the festival’s opening night Thursday featuring his latest work, “The Ax.” He brought along Michele Ray-Gavras, whom he introduced to the Castro Theatre audience as “my producer and also my wife, or my wife and also my producer.’’ The two smiled their way through a long evening that started with a cocktail reception at the theater and ended with a kind of block party spilling over every level of Ghirardelli Square.
Married 38 years, they’re one of those glamorous international couples who can schmooze in several languages. Costa-Gavras — his first name is Constantin, but he never uses it — wore a black sweater under a black suit. His lovely wife, who modeled for Chanel when Coco was still alive, also had on a black suit. With the flair French women seem to be born with, she draped a long red scarf over the jacket, and it miraculously stayed in place the entire night.
Costa-Gavras might have wound up in Hollywood instead of Paris if the American government hadn’t turned down his request for a visa when he was 18 and desperate to leave Greece. His father’s suspected Communist activity had made it impossible for him to get into a good university in his native country.
“I think all the time about what my life would have been like if I’d gone to America,” he told me. “Very probably I would not have been able to make the kind of movies I have made.’’ Costa-Gavras has taken on politically weighted subjects, in films like “Z,” “State of Siege,” “The Music Box” and “Betrayed,” the last two written by Joe Eszterhas.
“I traveled through deepest America with Joe, places like Nebraska and Montana where I never would have gone on my own,” Costa-Gavras said. He invited Eszterhas, who is living in the Bay Area while recovering from cancer, to the festival opening. “He’s much better, but couldn’t make it tonight,” he said of his friend.
Although “The Ax” is described as a comedy, it hardly shies away from disturbing contemporary events, in this case downsizing and the outsourcing of jobs, resulting in high unemployment in France. Desperate to find work after being laid off, the lead character methodically murders all his competitors for a management position in the paper industry.
“The Ax” is based on an American novel by Donald E. Westlake. “I wanted to make it as soon as I read it,” Costa-Gavras said, “but Paramount had the rights. My wife told me, ‘Don’t worry. Hollywood will never make the movie,’ and she was right.’’ Ray-Gavras became a producer after the birth of their two children made it difficult for her to continue as a globetrotting journalist. While covering the Vietnam War, she was captured by the Viet Cong, an experience her husband drew on making “Mad City,” in which a TV reporter played by Dustin Hoffman is taken captive during a hostage crisis.
Although she’s worked with numerous directors besides her husband, there’s a special bond when they do a movie together. I asked her how they met.
“We had a mutual friend, and in 1963, he told me, ‘I know someone who’s right for you.’ But when I met Costas, I thought, ‘This is a guy for two weeks, not a lifetime.’ Now we’ve been together more than 40 years. Our marriage has been up and down, up and down, just like your hills

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