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A serious European financial thriller is something of a novelty, and Costa-Gavras, the militant film master par excellence, shows perfect timing in his ambitious Capital, a film that lingers in the memory in spite of being rather irritating to watch.
The villain of the piece in this update on the evils of capitalism is the international banking system, coldly unveiled in its covert operations with predatory shareholders and brutal hedge funders.
Fast-paced enough for thriller fans and tarted up with corporate jets, flashy yachts and top models, it should have most appeal in the Euro zone, where public outrage over the kind of ruthless banking practices it depicts is now peaking. But it’s too cold-hearted and ambiguous to find the wide audience of a Wall Street.
The story is told through the flinty eyes of calculating young exec Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), named the new CEO of France’s important Phenix Bank afterle President collapses on the golf course.
Though the Board imagines he’s just a place-holder till one of the old guard can take over, they find to their dismay that he has other plans.
It is a treat to see him shock these black-suited undertakers with demands for more privileges and a higher salary (he sniffs at their offer of a measly 1.8 million euros a year.)
As he tells his nice wife (Natacha Regnier), money makes people respect you.
Modern Marc throws himself into high-rolling power games with the same ruthless hypocrisy as the old-timers. One of his first controversial moves is to hold a world-wide video conference with the bank’s rank-and-file directors and employees, promising to give them a voice in running the company. They cheer him on enthusiastically. But minutes later, behind closed doors, he cynically orders his underlings to fire a big percentage of them.
With each round of lay-offs, the bank’s stock shoots up. This wins Marc the confidence of Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), a smiling hyena who runs an American hedge fund out of Miami. It owns a large share of Phenix. And since Rigule’s shareholders want 20% on their equity investments, Marc has to fire even more employees.
In the final scenes the game becomes difficult to follow, as the American “cowboy capitalists” push Marc to ignore “French banking ethics” (as if he needed any encouragement) and buy a lame Japanese bank, which will somehow give them more shares of Phenix. Marc finds himself in a no-win corner, but determined to scheme his way out.
Managing billions at the speed of light as he globe-trots in corporate jets, Elmaleh’s suave, smart and humorless CEO is alternately admirable and detestable, but never easy to identify with. Viewers will have their own cut-off points, but his arrogant attitude towards women would make even the writers of French perfume ads wince.
Leaving aside the way he curtly dictates to his wife, his foolish infatuation with exotic top model Nassim (Lida Kebede) is an embarrassing misfire with no apparent narrative purpose. More serious treatment is reserved for attractive Maud Baron (a well-tuned Celine Sallette), a brilliant Asian analyst who shows up Marc’s hollow ethics for what they are, but their romance is an unconvincing non-starter.
In the role of the sharky Dittmar, whose motto is “money is the master, not the tool,” Byrne is plausible and truly frightening. He embodies the ugliness of unleashed capitalism in a very concrete way.
D.P. Eric Gautier’s stately, well-heeled lighting is edited to the breathless beat of non-stop corporate life and tensely scored by Armand Amar, linking the film to other memorable Costa-Gavras thrillers like Z, State of Siege andMissing.
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