Costa-Gavras' propulsive 1969 thriller Z, a thinly veiled account of the assassination of a Greek democratic politician by a military junta, shaped the political passions of many in my upstart generation. It also instilled in one impressionable young critic-to-be the conviction that the revolution would come packaged with the likes of Yves Montand as boyfriend material.
Costa-Gavras devoted the rest of his career to making films that reflect his fascination with absolute power gone berserk. His latest, a hectic, often grimly funny new thriller about the 2008 banking crisis, is also the subtlest in an oeuvre not known for its delicate touch.
Capital, based on a novel by banking insider Stephane Osmont, is set in Paris, where the 80-year-old director has lived for most of his adult life. Set in Paris, that is, when its caustic antihero isn't rushing around the world's sleek financial capitals — London, New York, Tokyo, Florida (Florida?) — in corporate jets.
Comedian Gad Elmaleh (Midnight in Paris) cleans up to be admirably flinty as Marc Tourneuil, a former economics professor turned flunky to the chief executive of the venerable French bank Phenix. To the horror of his astounded associates, Marc inherits the top job when his boss (Daniel Mesguich), a wily conniver with a decided resemblance to Italian polit-tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, suffers a heart attack.
Power-suited and staring down all opposition with his steely blue eyes, Marc takes to the ferocious one-upmanship of the new global economy like a duck to water. He jousts energetically with his colleagues and his Florida-based uber-boss, played by Gabriel Byrne, who's having as much fun as possible for a man answering in an Irish accent to the name Dittmar Rigule.
Capital makes for a solid entry in a pretty crowded field of accomplished corporate thrillers, among them The Social Network, Arbitrage, Margin Call and even Inside Job, a documentary in thriller clothing. Not all of them have done well at the box office, but personally I can't get enough of the ritual dissection of just how repellent were/are the (mostly) men who bungled, mismanaged and manufactured the banking crisis, and then lived on to fiddle while Rome, along with London, Paris, New York and 99 percenters the world over, got burned.
Costa-Gavras' film excels as a meticulously researched procedural that goes deep into the grime of greed, deception and cynical exploitation. But it is also a wickedly clever character analysis of a man more divided against himself than his preternatural calm suggests.
Marc's outer cool is belied by an inner life filled with fantasies of rage, lust and even a twinge of guilt here and there. Perpetually vigilant, he's a hollow man whose Achilles' heel is an animal attraction to a supermodel (played by Ethiopian actress and model Liya Kebede) who may or may not be bait cast by his enemies to set up his downfall.
Marc moves with apparent ease between the gleaming gray-and-silver surfaces of the new economy and the ornate olde-world palaces of French commerce and government, whose fastidiously gentlemanly ethics quickly collapse into collusion with the American behemoth.
And Marc is way ahead of the game, because he understands that it is a game to be won by the most ruthless and devious. In a brilliant set piece involving a multiply split screen, Marc uses a Maoist technique of "self-assessment" — also known as ratting out coworkers — to divide thousands of employees against one another and thus engineer their own layoffs.
Is there still the ghost of a good man in Marc, or is he an eternal opportunist ready to use anyone or any idea to promote himself? Is he a pawn, or a player checkmating the opposition at every turn?
You'll have to see the movie to find out, but for now I'll say that Capital has but one lonely heroic figure. For all its gleeful black comedy, the movie sounds a howl of despair for all our futures when, and I quote, "It all blows up." (Recommended)