Costa-Gavras’ latest film, Capital, opens with a benign scene of men playing golf, interrupted first by the collapse of one of the players, and then quickly thereafter by a fourth-wall-breaking bit of dialogue from the film’s malignantly ambitious protagonist, Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh). In that moment, as he coolly explains why it’s significant to the coming story—the fallen golfer is the leader of growth-minded Parisian institution Phenix Bank, and Tourneuil will soon find himself thrown into the position of acting CEO—we catch a first glimpse of the character’s inner life, a shady realm that displays itself in fits and starts, but always retreats behind a glass divide. Elmaleh, whose disconcerting blue gaze normally serves his work as a stand-up comedian (he did an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, weirdly enough) plays Tourneuil with an impassive distance, and just a hint of menace.
Thrust in front of the board, complete with a sinister trio who want to “bury the pooch with his master,” Tourneuil immediately complicates their plans. They want a temporary figurehead who will step down when he outgrows his usefulness. Tourneuil, on the other hand, intends to go over their heads into dealings with a group of American investors who can take Phenix from a French to a global power.
Costa-Gavras is still best known in the United States for his 1969 thriller Z, a film that clouded its tense procedural structure with inflammatory politics. (A disclaimer that precedes the film famously reads: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.”) With Capital, the director creates a drama that is both larger in scope and less immediate. The two films share a sense of biased narration, exhibited in Capital by an irregular flirtation with that fourth wall, alienating moments of slow motion, and a series of scenes in which Tourneuil breaks with reality to lash out violently at his in-laws and work colleagues. Tourneuil’s bouts of fantasy at first introduce the possibility that he is merely a hard-working guy being strangled by his “company man” status, but as the film progresses his restraint seems like a calculation, a characteristic that gives his rudderless pursuit of domination a sense of constancy. As he becomes embroiled in massive lay-offs and scandalous financial dealings, Tourneuil moves quickly from put-upon stooge to active aggressor.
Another wealth-obsessed film from this fall, the disastrous Runner Runner, depicted the heady world of online money exchange in a dead-eyed whirlwind of scantily clad women, champagne-filled private parties (at least one boasting an appearance from mouse-eared EDM figurehead, Deadmaus), and giggling villainy—in one scene, a character remarks that the spectacle is “everything you ever thought you wanted when you were thirteen.” Capital, though concerned with some of the same themes (greed, the potential impurity of invisible monetary transactions) exists in an entirely different world. Here, luxury is embedded in a routine, monochrome set of goods—designer suits, beautiful scarves, the pallid, expensive-looking offices in which Tourneuil visits his remotely located employees. Tourneuil treats these pedestrian signifiers as a vaguely crass sideshow circling the main event: the acquisition of power.
And like 13-year-old boys, the investors and bigwigs that Tourneuil deals with can’t help but show their own silliness. Some of the film’s rare comic moments spring from the divide between the icy, masculine Tourneuil and his emotional colleagues—in one scene, before two indignant underlings can even explain the issue they’ve brought before him, Tourneuil abruptly fires them both. The mouthpiece for the American investors, played by a growly, bossy Gabriel Byrne, video chats with Tourneuil from his yacht, where the party seems to be ongoing. A few days later, when Tourneuil arrives in Miami for their meeting, the investors appear to be listening to the same exact song that was playing during their teleconference.
There are hints at the conflicting values of French and American capitalism—the former full of social and ethical restrictions, the latter known for its freedom from them—but Capital is no morality tale. Its only real compass is a set of forced aphorisms that fans of ABC’s Shark Tank will likely find delightful (“Money is the master. The better you treat it, the better it treats you.”) In practice, the ostensible conflict of ethics against Tourneuil’s scramble for success is hardly a conflict at all.
The real turn in the film comes when Tourneuil, to the detriment of his relentless pursuit of power, begins to fall in love with his own charisma. In one thrilling scene, Tourneuil stands in front of a massive video screen populated by employee webcams and gains their allegiance even as he works to enact massive layoffs. Later, he remarks on how he never knew it was “such fun to spout crap.” A supermodel named Nassim (Liya Kebede), who shows up at various parties in startlingly bright colors, becomes the symbol of Tourneuil’s new thrill for lust and the animal magnetism he’s learning to command.
It’s Nassim who eventually becomes the victim of Tourneuil’s violent need to conquer this human limitation, in a sequence that’s filmed with eerie detachment in the back of a limousine. When it’s over, her disdain hovers palpably in the air, a toxic cloud that clings to Tourneuil as he enters the board room once more. There he declares himself, to wild applause, “the Robin Hood of the rich.” In light of everything we’ve seen, his speech is as thrilling and inconceivable as the virtual world of high-speed trading. Is Tourneuil an anti-hero? A megalomaniac monster? Watching the credits roll, I was hard pressed to feel one way or another for the characters whose lives I’d just seen irreparably changed. (Though in this age of big-budget, clear-cut morality, I derived some satisfaction from the uncertainty.) Capital’s chief pleasure is also a huge limitation: in all its merciless hubris, it’s smartly, stylishly blank.
Writer: Karim Boukercha, Costa-Gavras, Jean-Claude Grumberg (screenplay); Stéphane Osmont (novel)
Starring: Gad Elmaleh, Natacha Régnier, Gabriel Byrne, Liya Kebede, Céline Sallette
Release Date: Oct. 25th, 2013