When it comes to cinema, my favourite directors and actors are so old I can’t help feeling privileged when they become attached to a new movie. It was with special contentment that a few years ago I watched The Ghost Writer, thinking that I was having one of the last opportunities of watching a Roman Polanski movie on the big screen. Last year I had the pleasure of watching 82-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant, a French actor whose work has enchanted me for many years, deliver in Amour what may be the crowning achievement of his long career. And I continue to hope David Lynch will release a new movie one day.
But this can become problematic too, because many of my favourite directors and actors peaked a long time ago and I’m fully aware I’ll never see them again at the height of their talent. No one realistically watches Robert DeNiro playing secondary roles in comedies and thinks they’ll get another Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta out of him.
Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker living in France since the 1950s, peaked in 1982, when he received a Best Adapted Screenplay for Missing, a spellbinding and heartbreaking drama starring Jack Lemon as a father looking for his son, a missing journalist, in Pinochet’s Chile. Ironically the movie also marked his career’s decline. As his movies switched from French to English and he started working in Hollywood his movies became more conventional, some occasionally interesting like Music Box or Betrayed, others total failures like Mad City. Even after he distanced himself from Hollywood and returned to Europe, movies like Amen and The Axe lacked the stylishness and clever dialogue of his earlier work. And so we arrive at his latest movie, Capital.
Since the 2008 crash we have seen a series of movies and documentaries about the financial system: Capitalism: A Love Story, Margin Call, The Company Men, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, you name it. All of a sudden capitalism’s internal problems, which had never been solved but merely pushed out of our sight, have come to the fore and we need fictions to help us make sense of these problems and what they mean to us and to the world. Artists are a heterogeneous bunch and their movies will have different purposes: some are bombastic and heavy-handed, others will merely depict the crisis with clinical objectivity. Capital is firmly entrenched on the over-the-top, why-won’t-you-revolt-in-indignation camp.
Gad Elmaleh plays Marc Tourneuil, an employee at a powerful French bank, the Phénix, who unexpectedly becomes its president when his boss starts dying from cancer. Handpicked by him because he will be easier to control, Tourneuil turns the tables around when he starts going against the board members’ wishes. His real challenge, however, comes when Dittmar Rigule (played by Gabriel Byrne), a financer running a hedge fund out of Miami, becomes the Phénix’s major stockholder and forces it to adopt American-style wild capitalism. Tourneuil’s first mission is to fire around 10,000 people in order to increase the stockholders’ profits by 20%. That he does with aplomb, even after organising a world-wide video-conference with every Phénix employee and director to assure them that there will be no massive downsizing. But Tourneuil starts sensing a real threat to his survival when Dittmar insists in him buying a Japanese bank that a report claims to be in serious financial trouble. Guessing Dittmar’s plan to make him look incompetent while debilitating the Phénix with a ruinous hostile takeover that will guarantee the Miami hedge fund to gain total control of it, Tourneuil puts into practice a two-faced scheme not so much to save his bank but to make sure he comes out of the battle as its de facto leader.
In our current economic climate, one has to wonder about the wisdom of making the hero an immoral, selfish banker who calls himself a modern Robin Hood, stealing from the poor so the rich may become richer. Tourneuil shows off his affluence without moral pangs for the lives he destroys, and his daily existence is a series of globe-trotting journeys to exotic places like Tokyo and Miami, where he hangs out at luxurious parties with models. He cheats on his wife (Natacha Régnier), embezzles money to keep a fashion model (Liya Kebede), and betrays the expectations of his only ally in the bank (Céline Sallette). Add to Tourneuil’s loathsome personality and actions Elmaleh’s cold stare and stony facial expressions, and you have a protagonist who is only the hero because the villains, the predatory Miami bankers, are much worse. Elmaleh is so bland one presumes if has to be part of the acting. Perhaps it’s Costa-Gavras’ intention to totally dehumanize the banking class. Be as it may, Elmaleh comes off as a poor man’s Alain Delon, no emotion in his icy blue eyes, but no charisma either.
The vicious, ambiguous Tourneuil is in the vein of Costa-Gavras’ previous anti-hero from The Axe. In this movie an upper-middle class executive is fired during his company’s downsizing. After two years unemployed, he starts killing his competitors for job vacancies. It’s a lovely dark comedy that constantly asks the viewer why he should care about this ruthless bastard getting a job when there are millions of better people with worse lives in the same desperate situation. I think perhaps it’s because we don’t care about poor people anymore. Decades ago – I mean the turbulent and hopeful sixties and seventies – people believed in class war, people even had had and though the world could be made a better place. But we live in an age when the media vehemently say class war does not exist, and instead scares us into thinking the world is a cesspit that will remain a cesspit because we’re too insignificant to make a difference. And perhaps they’re right. So in this atomised environment, the poor are poor because they want to not because of circumstances beyond their power, we are frequently told. And although in the past one could feel sympathy for them, nowadays we feel disgusted by them. We don’t like poor people, we don’t want to see them, we don’t want to think about them. We admire the rich, the famous, the powerful, we want to be them. So instead of wanting to make the viewer feel sad about the wretched, when that shtick doesn’t work anymore in our selfish era, Costa-Gavras shows how he thinks the rich think and live, and then asks, “Are these your modern heroes, are these the people you want to be? Are you really capable of rooting for these scumbags?”
The message is interesting, but the actual execution lacks merit and sounds too preachy to seduce any viewer who reasonably doesn’t like to be lectured without a good dose of entertainment to wash it down. The characters’ motivations are frequently sketchy, many characters are one-dimensional, and the dialogue is peppered with too many corny aphorisms that lack the depth the screenwriters mistakenly think they have.
Costa-Gavras left Greece in the 1950s to study cinema. First he tried to apply for a visa in America, but was denied because of his father’s communist background. So he settled in France instead. Beginning his film career in 1965, he became part of an international tendency in the arts towards political activism, which had seduced filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers), Francesco Rosi (Exquisite Corpses), Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Bernardo Bertolucci (Novecento), Henri Verneuil (I… Comme Icare), Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men), and continued well into the eighties with filmmakers like Warren Beatty and Oliver Stone, before fizzling out as capitalism triumphed over the Soviet Union and revolutionary fervour became antiquated. At the beginning of his career, Costa-Gavras made passionate, intense but also well-crafted and intelligent movies. In 1969 Z, a fast-paced thriller about the investigation into the murder of a left-wing Greek candidate, won two Academy awards, was a worldwide success and catapulted the director into stardom. In the seventies, working with screenwriters Jorge Semprún and Franco Solinas, he made several good movies: The Confession, State of Siege, Special Section. Each showcased his knack for exciting montages, clever humour, polemical topics and entertaining storylines, and although they never met with Z’s success they were at least every bit as watchable. But starting in the eighties his career started decaying, his movies losing their panache and becoming bland vehicles to vent his moral and social outrage. The fury started compromising the artistry. Being Greek, Costa-Gavras must be particularly sensitive to Greece’s current economic difficulties, victim of ruthless ratings agencies, predatory stockholders who concoct stock market crashes, and an IMF with a neoliberal agenda that wants to socially devolve Greece back to the 19th century. And this movie is clearly him getting even with the whole financial system, even if only at a fictional level. My sympathy is with him and his birthplace and I applaud him for his convictions, but this isn’t good art. The world today isn’t very different than the world of the young filmmaker who made Z and State of Siege. But I think it’s time for a new generation of politically-committed filmmakers to bear the torch, with Costa-Gavras’s fierce passion but also the skills he displayed decades ago. Then we can have intelligent and relevant political cinema again. If art has the power to change the world, and I believe it has that power, it must be an art of a greater aesthetic value than Capital.
Capital had its UK premiere on May 12, during the Le Long Weekend festival, held at the Tricycle Theatre, London.
Screenplay: Stéphane Osmont (novel), Costa-Gavras, Karim Boukercha, Jean-Claude Grumberg
Cast: Gad Elmaleh, Gabriel Byrne, Natacha Régnier, Céline Sallette, Liya Kebede, Hippolyte Girardot