Killing Zoe (1993)

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*. This is a movie that I have a conflicted response to, or a conflicted response to the responses there have been to it. What I mean is that people tend to either love or hate it, and they love or hate it for (what seem to me to be) all the wrong reasons.
*. It’s most often damned as being Tarantino-lite. You can understand where this is coming from: writer-director Roger Avary had been, and was at the time, a close collaborator with Tarantino. They broke into the business together with very similar genre interests and backgrounds. If the New Hollywood was all about European art house meets American genre films, the emphasis the new New Hollywood would take would be, in Avary’s words, art house meets exploitation.
*. Aside from this, however, and aside from the odd tic in the script (the discussion of obscure pop cultural references like The Prisoner, or the lengthy telling of an obscene joke), Avary and Tarantino have very different sensibilities and I don’t think it makes much sense to compare them.
*. Take two essential differences. Tarantino is all about rhythm, and his movies often set a manic pace. Avary is far more relaxed and sedate, with no interest in the verbal pyrotechnics of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. One can prefer one approach to the other, but it’s arguing over taste and those who complain that this movie is dull are judging it by a standard it doesn’t aspire to.
*. Then there are the characters we meet. Here, I’m afraid, we have to recognize a falling off. If Reservoir Dogs showed us professional gangsters affecting the personae of slackers, Killing Zoe gives us a group of slackers only pretending to be gangsters.

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*. The reason this doesn’t work is because we just can’t believe that any of the losers in Eric’s gang, with the exception of Zed, has a clue what they’re doing. The actual plan seems preposterous. How were they going to get all that gold out of the building?, and is it remotely credible that they thought nobody in the bank would have a chance to hit a silent alarm while they were barging in with their guns? Of course we later learn that Eric wasn’t thinking this far ahead, but I’m still surprised that none of his flunkies was either.
*. Then when they are inside the bank the pace works against Avary as everyone seems to just dawdle along wasting time, seemingly in no rush to get cracking on a job that even under ideal circumstances was going to take far, far too long to pull off.
*. There are other problems as well, suggesting a gap (not surprising given this was Avary’s first work, and done on a tight budget) between concept and reality. I’ll point out three examples.
*. First, there is the link to Vikings. Apparently Avary, quite unironically, thought of the gang as modern-day Vikings on a pillaging expedition for booty. Indeed, he even gave cast members copies of Beowulf to read. But . . . really? This bunch of drugged-out losers are Vikings?
*. Second, there is the painting at the bank, which is from Jacques Louis-David’s Oath of the Horatii. About this Avary says “When I was in Paris, I used to go to the Louvre and stare at David’s ‘Oath of the Horatii’ because it meant so much to me. David was like the Steven Spielberg of his time, a popular painter who entertained the masses. I love his work.” Which is fine but . . . what is it doing here? What does it mean? I can’t think of any connection between the subject of the painting (which has to do with a bunch of brothers avenging the honour of their sisters) and the plot of Killing Zoe. As with the Viking references, one suspects Avary just threw in something he thought was cool.
*. Third, there is the title. This was meant to suggest that Eric’s AIDS-infected blood had been transmitted to either Zed or Zoe or both at the end. I suppose this is a possibility, but it remains nothing more than that. I don’t have anything against being merely suggestive, but as with the Vikings and the David painting, one gets the sense from interviews (and, in this final case, from the fact that it’s the film’s title) that Avary meant it to be something more.

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*. The bright red bank vaults don’t strike me as credible, but the point was to suggest, in a lurid way, a descent into hell/Eric’s tortured mind. But why Eric‘s mind? I like Jean-Hugues Anglade here, but it shouldn’t be his movie, should it? Alas, Stoltz and Delpy aren’t that interesting.
*. I suppose we’re supposed to laught at the loudmouth American braggart getting shot, though I find him such a caricature the joke backfires. He’s even wearing shorts and a baseball cap, something I’m told you just didn’t do in Paris at the time unless you were an American tourist.
*. I don’t mind the slow pace, though I do resent some of the wasted time. This begins with the opening credits, that take us on a drive through Paris, presumably in the cab taking us to the airport to pick up Zed. I didn’t see it as necessary or as an effective way of setting any kind of tone.
*. Like the red vaults or the loud American, the intercutting between clips from Nosferatu (shown out of order, I believe) and Zed and Zoe having sex strikes me as too obvious and too obscure at the same time. We can be sure some point is being made, but not what it might be. That Zoe is a succubus? But that can’t be right.
*. What this adds up to is a decent little movie that is too ambitious, and perhaps even too smart, for its own good. It has all sorts of interesting little elements that don’t cohere or that seem superfluous. I mean, take an obvious question like Why is this movie set in Paris? It wasn’t even shot in Paris. Did having half the movie in subtitles add to its “art house” feel?
*. Anglade’s Eric is fun to watch, and it’s an interesting twist having the gang leader be someone who is, as I understand it, on a suicide mission. I love how he looks at that big pile of gold and we realize that this was his goal, to simply become rich for a moment and then die. The confidence such a figure has is magnetically charismatic. Nothing can touch him. His death is serene.

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