'Adults in the Room': Film Review | Venice 2019

Elle Driver
An insightful and exasperating inside look at EU politics.

In his latest feature, which premiered out of competition in Venice, 86-year-old auteur Costa-Gavras dramatizes the Greek government's faceoff with the European Union in 2015.

So much of an absurdist tragedy that it could almost play as comedy, the Greek debt crisis, which began over a decade ago and may now, at least on paper, have finally ended, is a story composed of multiple protagonists from many nations, government agencies and positions of power throughout the European Union and beyond. But the only real victims of this decade-long ordeal may be the Greeks themselves.

This is the sad moral of Costa-Gavras’ latest feature, Adults in the Room, which is also the 86-year-old director’s first movie to specifically tackle the politics of his homeland since his 1969 Oscar-winning film Z. But unlike that historic thriller, which depicted the brutal efforts of the Greek dictatorship to squash democracy, the culprit in this highly bureaucratic drama is “Europe’s Deep Establishment,” to quote the subtitle of the book by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on which the pic is based.

Consisting almost entirely of closed-door meetings, back-channeled discussions and open debates that took place during the first half of 2015, when Varoufakis (played by lookalike Christos Loulis) was appointed by the new left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsiparis (Alexandros Bourdoumis) to save Greece from financial ruin, Adults delves so deep into the nitty-gritty of European policymaking that it might as well be a C-SPAN special.

For those interested in how the EU sausage is made — a process that Costa-Gavras mines both for its theatricality and seeming inanity — the film can be a gripping piece of infotainment, even if it runs long at 124 minutes. Others may shy away from so many administrative details, but they will be missing out on a movie that tries to cut through all the red tape and explore the human travails behind the protocols.

If the Greek debt crisis were Game of Thrones, then Yanis Varoufakis would probably be its Jon Snow: an outsider brave enough to take on the powers-that-be, but perhaps too naïve and inexperienced to understand how realpolitik — both in his own country and in the tangled behemoth that is the European Union — actually works.

When Adults begins, Yanis (all the characters in the film are called by their first names) has just been named head of finance by Alexis, who was elected PM in January 2015 when his liberal party won a snap vote. Their promise is to get Greece out of its current crisis and reject some of the austerity measures imposed upon it by the EU.

In order to enact their master plan, Yanis first has to convince the EU to modify the payment terms of Greece’s massive debt (which had ballooned to €300 billion by 2015), giving his country a helping hand in rebuilding its economy. But as Yanis will learn over many months of negotiations, trying to persuade the head honchos — the so-called “Troika” made up of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund — to budge as much as a millimeter is, to get Greek about it, a Sisyphean task.

And yet, Yanis may just be stubborn and cunning enough to get the job done, rushing from meeting to meeting, and from official to official, in a labyrinthine pursuit to plead his case. Those he deals with are a who’s who of former EU bigwigs: there’s Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Daan Schuurmans), dryly presiding over the finance committee and playing both sides of the debate; Wolfgang Schäuble (Ulrich Tukur), the German minister who storms in and out of the proceedings in a wheelchair like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, and who tries to boot Greece out of the EU altogether; and Michel Barnier (Vincent Nemeth), the two-faced French official who promises Yanis one thing while saying the opposite during press conferences.

At the heart of the matter is whether the EU is willing to cede enough to get Greece back on track, preventing a monetary crisis from turning into a full-scale collapse that could contaminate the rest of the Union and even the world. Yanis, who’s convincingly portrayed by Loulis as a savvy negotiator with solid economic chops, thinks that compromise is the only solution. But he’s also unwilling to sell out Alexis and the platform his party was voted in on, which has been backed by the majority of Greeks.

The push-and-pull between Yanis and everyone else, including his own boss, occupies most of the movie, growing increasingly Kafkaesque as a real solution appears just around the corner and then suddenly becomes unobtainable. We also catch a few glimpses of Yanis’ home life, where he seems to have a good thing going with his partner, Dea (Italian actress Valeria Golino, going Greek here) — to the point that she tries to help him woo a certain German official during a long dinner of white wine and tzatziki.

As convoluted as Yanis’ brief experience was — in the opening we learn that he resigned after six months — Costa-Gavras does a good job streamlining some, if not all, of the narrative, making sense of the massive bowl of alphabet soup that is the European government (EU, EC, ECB, etc.). Given that he adapted his movie from fellow countryman Varoufakis’ autobiographical book, it’s obvious whose side the director is on, favoring the Greeks over everyone else and showing how much they were victims of both rampant global capitalism and the unstoppable euro-cracy.

Strangely enough, those who believe in deep state conspiracies or who oppose the EU as a world power may find much to appreciate here, even if Costa-Gavras’ politics, like Yanis’ and Alexis’, clearly lean to the left. If anything, his film reveals how all the infighting among Europe’s member states is not unlike your typical schoolyard quarrel, with everyone shifting allegiances to save their country's skin or simply to save face. The irony, emphasized by the film’s title, is that each EU official believes they’re the only adult in the room but few of them tend to act like it.

Tech credits are solid for a movie whose principal settings are bland offices, bland conference rooms or bland hotel suites with views of more bland buildings. (Whether you’re for the EU or against it, you have to admit that its administrative centers are not pretty to look at.) Working with veteran cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis (The Traveling Players) Costa-Gavras makes these faceless spaces more dynamic than you would expect, even if the majority of his film consists of talking heads, most of them graying, balding or both. Rounding out the package is a score by Oscar regular Alexandre Desplat that brings out the lighter side of all the debt and despair.   

Production companies: KG Production, Wild Bunch, Elle Drive, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Christos Loulis, Alexandros Bourdoumis, Ulrich Tukur, Daan Schuurmans, Christos Stergiouglou, Dimitris Tarlow, Alexandros Logothetis, Josiane Pinson
Director-screenwriter: Costa-Gavras, based on the book
Adults in the Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment by Yanis Varoufakis
Producers: Michele Ray-Gavras, Alexandre Gavras
Executive producers: Kostas Lambropoulos, Giorgos Kyriakos
Director of photography: Yorgos Arvanitis
Production designers: Spyros Laskaris, Philippe Chiffre
Costume designer: Agis Panayotou
Editors: Costa-Gavras, Lambis Charalampidis
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Casting directors: Jina Jay, Jessie Frost, Maiks Gazis, Marie France Michel
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Elle Driver

In English, Greek, French, German
124 minutes