Capital (Le Capital), the latest work by legendary director Costa-Gavras, opened in New York theaters on October 25 and gained a wider release in the US on November 1.
The reviews are beginning to come in now and they are spread pretty evenly between positive and negative response (Rotten Tomatoes). Some reviewers do not seem to appreciate the comedic and satiric elements in the film, elements that have much more to do with the way the story is told than they do with the presence of Gad Elmaleh, a well-known comedian in France. The adjective most often used to describe Dittmar Rigule, the hedge-fund mastermind played by Gabriel Byrne, is “reptilian” and everyone hates him, so kudos to Mr. Byrne!
Before the reviews, let’s take a look at an interview with Costa-Gavras provided on October 9 by Democracy Now: Taking on Capitalism, U.S. Torture & Dictatorships, Costa-Gavras on Decades of Political Filmmaking. This will give those who are not very familiar with his past work some sense of the man and the director. The trailer for Capital and two scenes from the film are included in this video as well and other Costa-Gavras films are addressed. There is a full transcript of the interview at the Democracy Now website.
1. Gabriel Byrne first worked with Costa-Gavras in the film Hanna K (1983). In this interview from the Le Capital DVD, he discusses both Hanna K and Capital and also talks about his experience working with Costa-Gavras.
2. I saw Costa-Gavras’ first film, Z (1969) in the theater when I was 16 years old. I had only a hazy idea of the political nature of the film, of course, but I will never forget the music and the sense of tremendous urgency in the pacing of the story. Seeing Le Capital on DVD over the summer, I was so impressed by the fast pace and the intensity of the story. More than 40 years later, the director still has that sense of urgency and he still tells his story with consummate skill and the same political commitment he has imbued in all of his films. I find that extraordinary.
More interviews with director Costa-Gavras are at the end of this posting.
[Mr. Kohn compares two recent releases: The Counselor and Capital]
Despite these sudden bursts of violence, “Capital” maintains a firm sense of realism. Unlike “The Counselor,” Gavras never forces the material into allegorical turf; it’s a relatively straightforward look at the ramifications of getting blinded by dollar signs, with perhaps one of the most clearly defined visions of economic depravity since “Wall Street.”
Emphasizing that connection perhaps a little too bluntly, “Capital” has its own version of Gordon Gekko’s famed “greed is good” speech, here delivered to a roomful of shareholders and revolving around the notion of banking executives as inverted Robin Hoods funneling money upward to the open arms of the one percent. Despite the transparency of its ideas, “Capital” provides a fascinating thematic contrast to this week’s biggest release: While “The Counselor” finds the villains of socioeconomic imbalance lurking in the shadows, “Capital” shows them hiding in plain sight.
Every boardroom dick-measuring contest Marc steps into is simultaneously wafer-thin and beautifully acted, his eyes forever darting around, utterly severed from the words leaving his mouth. Whereas it took Oliver Stone two long hours to recognize Gordon Gekko’s lack of moral filling, Capital opens with the same emptiness guaranteed, like a retinal scan of nihilism—promising that things can only get weirder from there.
So Evil, They Cackle at Strategy Meetings
This is a movie in search of a tagline as succinct as “Greed is good,” from “Wall Street.” But the best it can come up with is “Money is the master,” the motto of Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), a reptilian hedge fund manager, based in Miami, whose fund has borrowed money to take over the fictional Phenix bank in France. Nothing less than a 20 percent annual yield can keep the bank afloat. Dittmar is the movie’s only character to convey an enjoyment of the mischief he stirs up, not to mention a voluptuous appreciation for the perks of wealth. He slyly refers to the beauties lounging on his yacht as “the fauna.”
Greed, for lack of a better word, is perhaps not as good as it used to be. It’s ugly and treacherous, and unabashedly so, in “Capital,” a financial thriller set in the highest echelons of France’s wealthy and powerful…
…Still, a massive takeover is underway, and Marc must figure out a way to navigate it rather than becoming its victim. Having a strong handle on the workings of complex global finance probably helps while watching “Capital,” but isn’t a necessity; Marc spells things out pretty plainly when he glibly describes himself as a Robin Hood to the rich. The film could take place in any number of settings where ego and testosterone dictate action and fortunes are won or lost in a matter of minutes.
The famously left-leaning Costa-Gavras is preaching to the choir in his indignation, but he does so in slick, brisk fashion.
Misbehaving bankers, facetious tone
The Greek-born, French-based, Oscar-winning Costa-Gavras has always had his finger on the world pulse, his filmography (“Z,” “Missing”) always a fiercely political mixed bag of outrage and dramatic purpose. Although his instincts have always seemed prescient, with “Capital,” he isn’t exactly ahead of the pack — global banking as a portal to hell has been done, and done again. But his approach — vaguely farcical, whimsical and absurdist — is new. And new for him…
…His American counterparts, notably Dittmar (Gabriel Byrne) have other ideas and have bought up enough shares to hang over Marc’s head as they attempt to steer Phenix onto the shoals of commerce and buy it cheaply. Costa-Gavras makes the financial chicanery clear enough for the layman while casting the entire adventure — via Marc’s moustache-twirling voice-over, overwrought action and melodramatic plot points — as dry farce.
‘Capital’ forgets the bottom line — outrage
It’s a tacit acknowledgment that heated talk of stock and layoffs isn’t enough. There’s plenty of pacing verve in Costa-Gavras’ technique, and the residue from that first thrilling peek inside the hermetic world of big-time money-moving never goes away. What’s lacking is most surprising from this dissident filmmaker: the emotional outrage.
The film may not be as elegant as the previous financial procedurals, and Costa-Gavras’ brief forays into cinematic trickery threaten our suspension of disbelief. Maybe the complex plot is the message here, illustrating the opacity that allows these guys to get away with so much. What Capital does make clear is that the time is ripe for a film suggesting solutions to the crimes and excesses of these high-finance bandits and the system that enables them. For now, it looks like sci-fi or fantasy would be the only way to go.
Capital Is a Searing, If Uneven Critique of Economics and Power
Things like this make Capital hard to pin down. To a certain extent, we’re intended to get lost in its fog, to question our own disposition towards the characters and their actions. This is perhaps best realized in a final scene, when Tourneuil turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience. They are all children, he says of the board members who laugh uncontrollably at a joke the CEO has just made about his own greed and power. It’s a line that offers the audience an easy moral high horse, and yet that critical distance disarms our sense of indignation. Just as Tourneuil’s own joke allowed the board members in on the true motives of his ambition in a way that makes them laugh, and not critique, the CEO, Tourneuil lets the audience into his plot by offering us a place from which we can laugh at these silly people. Keeping us, the audience – the public — at bay, after all, is necessary to his success. It’s Tourneuil who is really laughing at us.
The film is structured more or less as a morality play. Although Marc is a jerk, the film hints from time to time that he’s not irredeemably evil (though it’s frankly hard to buy that when we watch him sexually assault the supermodel in the back of a limo). His colleague Maud — the film’s real moral center — tries to get Marc, a former teacher, to redeem himself by going back to academia and writing an exposé of greed and power in the financial industry.
Don’t get your hopes up.
“Capital” is also about a lack of ethics and corruption.
If you don’t respect the dignity of other people, you don’t have any ethics. There is no doubt it is about ethics. They (executives) understand very quickly that they belong to the stockholders and their position depends on them, and if they don’t do what the stockholders want they will lose their position.
So when they get up there, they are like kings. They have all the money and the power, the sex, and it is very difficult for most of them to lose all those things, so they prefer to stay and forget about ethics.
Costa-Gavras: Cinema’s Last Angry Man
The character of Marc is certainly at best, an anti-hero, even though he isn’t particularly likable, he’s the most likable character in this particular nest of vipers. The fantasies he has throughout the film about “doing the right thing” drive this home.
It would have been simple to make Marc a standard bad guy, but that would have been too easy. What I found interesting about his character is that he thinks about doing the right thing most of the time, but then never winds up doing them. I wanted to show there is a conscience in there. Most of the bankers I met during my research were like this: very cogent of the situation they were in and what the right thing would be to do, then almost never doing it.
Acclaimed filmmaker Costa-Gavras on the continued importance of socially relevant films and his new drama about the banking industry
When you see some recent movies like Margin Call, The Help, 42, or The Butler, are movies serving and fully exploring the social issues they’re dealing with?
I think movies, the maximum they can do, is to make people think a little bit if they want to. If they don’t, they just change the subject, but I think it’s the role of the movies. The real role of the movies also is to try to show what is hidden, what’s not obvious in society [emphasis mine]. My answer is that we directors have a serious responsibility in front of our audiences, for what we show them.
Screencaps are from the film. More are available in the Gallery.
Have you seen Capital? What do YOU think?