“Money is the master!” a hedge fund head exclaims to the chief executive of a European bank in Capital, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a rallying cry or a call for help. The ambiguity is intentional: As directed by Costa-Gavras, the Greek-French director whose name was synonymous with the political thriller genre in the 1970s, this new film suggests that money has a life of its own. Those who pretend to control it can become its puppets in the blink of an eye.
Fittingly, there are no real heroes in Capital, which opens in New York this week and will expand nationally through November. But the closest one is Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), a French banking executive who is temporarily handed the reins of Phenix, one of Europe’s biggest financial institutions, after the CEO has a heart attack on a golf course. Marc realizes that the only reason he’s been elevated is his perceived pliability, but he’s got focus and ambition to burn. Soon enough, he’s laying off thousands and seeking to raise the bank’s market value. Along the way, he forges an alliance with Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), the head of an American hedge fund that also has a stake in Phenix. But it’s an extremely cautious partnership: Rigule wants to take over Phenix, and his alternately seductive and threatening ways make it clear that, to the Americans, Marc is an extremely expendable asset. We begin to suspect, however, that this young French CEO might be just as ruthless as they are.
Capital was adapted loosely from the 2004 novel Le Capital, written by Stephane Osmont, reportedly the nom de plume of a French financial industry veteran. That book’s hero seemed to be modeled after fallen Vivendi (VIV:FP) chief Jean-Marie Messier, and it was full of appearances by the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates. The film isn’t quite as dishy (though a certain “Rupert” and his sexed-up wife do put in a brief appearance). In fact, it’s a lot more sober-minded about the realities of finance—not just on an institutional level, but on a personal one as well. Marc’s wife is ambivalent about his job, but she also admits that she’s awfully good at spending his millions. At a dinner with his extended family, Marc is grilled by a leftist uncle about his job. He replies by saying that international finance has achieved the old Marxist dream of a borderless world.
Previous cinematic looks at the business world have had to traffic in scandal and/or criminality to make their stories compelling to viewers (think: Wall Street or Boiler Room). Though there are some sexual shenanigans in Capital—the married Marc becomes enamored with a beautiful international supermodel)—the film’s drama comes mostly from the wheelings and dealings of high finance. Perhaps its most exciting and climactic scene involves people watching a stock’s value plummet on a computer screen.
This filmmaker understands how to make scenes of men sitting around tables genuinely exciting. Costa-Gavras became a household name and won a couple of Oscars some decades ago with a series of fast-paced political thrillers such as Z (1969), State of Siege (1972), and Missing (1982), which were entertaining and disturbing in equal measure. Over the past decade, however, he has shifted focus: In 2005, he made The Axe, a film about a downsized executive who starts killing his competition in the hunt for a new job; 2009’s dark comedy Eden Is West looked at the plight of illegal immigrants in Europe.
The real source of power, he seems to be suggesting, has moved from the realm of governments and military force to the world of money. Capital is his most potent look yet at the battlefield of modern economics.