“People believe money is a tool. Money is the master; the better you serve it, the better it treats you.”
That mantra — spouted by a ruthless hedge fund manager in Capital — may not be as succinct or as elegant in its simplicity as “Greed is good,” but the message remains the same. Most people see money as a means to an end, but to the financial masters of the universe in this French financial thriller, money is the end.
Through voiceover narration and Frank Underwood-style asides, we learn ambitious young exec Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh) has strategically placed himself near the top of Phenix, one of Europe’s most powerful banks. When the bank’s CEO (Daniel Mesguich) collapses on a golf course, Marc is tapped to be the company’s new leader. He quickly realizes the bank’s board of directors and its shareholders — led by Miami-based hedge fund manager Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne) — view him (at best) as a placeholder until a more experienced executive can take charge. At worst, Marc is a patsy who can take the fall for the company’s shortcomings.
Unfortunately for them, they’re not able to hear Marc’s voiceover and have no idea he has other plans. The new, untested CEO goes off-script at almost every opportunity, starting with his demand to be paid the exact same salary as his predecessor. For a while, it seems like Capital might be positioning Marc as a maverick intent on upending the previously established system. (Particularly when his speech at a videoconference galvanizes the bank’s lower-level employees across the world.) But it’s no spoiler to say Marc’s subsequent actions — including dodging a hostile takeover from Dittmar, as well as flirting dangerously with intoxicating, erratic supermodel Nassim (Liya Kebede) — are more in his own best interests than those of the bank.
Capital is from writer/director Costa-Gavras, who has been making politically-charged films since the ‘60s. (Including 1969’s Oscar-winning Z.) It’s based on a Stephane Osmont novel, and the subject seems uniquely suited to the Greek-French filmmaker. Capital (or Le Capital) is largely set in France, with pit stops in the United States, England, and Japan. Meanwhile, Greece’s disastrous economic crisis has made headlines across the world in recent years. So it’s not surprising to see Costa-Gavras has a rather bleak view of his own protagonist.
Elmaleh brings a chilly, cunning intensity to his performance as Marc. The poker face serves him well in the boardroom, but feels like an impediment during any scene between Marc and his supportive, increasingly-estranged wife Diane (an under-utilized Natacha Regnier). We see a crack in the veneer when Marc talks about his former life as an aspiring writer with Maud Baron (Celine Sallette, in a cool, competent performance), an honest hard-working employee who helps him navigate a potentially disastrous merger with a Japanese bank. Meanwhile, the cool façade completely falls away whenever Marc is around Nassim. Unfortunately, these are also the moments that fall the flattest. I get that Nassim is a stunning woman, but the extent to which the calculating Marc completely loses his cool around her didn’t feel believable. What’s worse, this whole story arc — even with the suggestion that Nassim may have been nudged to connect with Marc — felt inessential.
It’s the loudest false note in what is otherwise a very well-crafted cinematic contraption. Costa-Gavras is most successful in conveying all the different and specific ways Marc is surrounded by treachery. As the biggest ongoing threat to Marc, Byrne literally phones in his performance as Dittmar, but still manages to cut a slithery, intimidating figure. The motivations of various board members and shareholders are clearly outlined despite all the financial jargon. The director — who also co-wrote the screenplay with Karim Boukercha and Jean-Claude Grumberg — also sneaks in bits of bleak humor. (The number of proposed, profit-boosting layoffs within the bank seems to creep higher every time Marc discusses the topic.) There are also a few instances where Marc imagines having violent outbursts; unfortunately, they were largely ineffective because it was always clear when the story was taking a break from reality. (At least the outburst involving Dittmar was visually inventive.)
Early on in Capital, ruthless Marc states that he wants to make the same amount of money as the previous CEO because it represents the same amount of respect. I was grateful to see the film eschew the traditional “good guy gets seduced by ambition” arc we’ve seen countless times, but I do wish Marc’s character had been fleshed out beyond a couple of scenes paying lip service to his nobler, past aspirations. Costa-Gavras does a strong job conveying the soul-crushing demands and pitfalls someone in Marc’s position has to contend with. (“CEO of a major bank” seems to be right up there with “King of Westeros” as titles that make you seem important even though the job is absolutely terrible.)
The director seems to understand this and has made a suitably grim drama that also reflects the times. In other words, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that money — whether it’s a means to an end, or the end itself — doesn’t buy happiness.
Capital is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 31 mbps. The film’s baseline image is comprised of a chilly, gray-blue palette that matches Marc’s eyes. However as the story progresses — and the CEO flies to different parts of the world — the presentation proves to be more varied. The picture becomes unsurprisingly sunny during a jaunt to Miami, but the increased brightness and clarity make a return during the Phenix videoconference sequence. Black levels are solid, but don’t come into play much. (Besides the scene where Nassim takes Marc to a sleazy club and a late-night stroll with Maud.) The boldest pops of colors come from Nassim’s eye-catching wardrobe choices. Fine detail is good, not quite great in close-ups. Overall, a strong visual presentation that is more versatile than I expected.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 French track won’t knock anyone off their couches, but that’s not its intention. Instead, it’s a wonderfully involving and immersive track that has sound effects, ambient noises and Armand Amar’s score playing perfectly together throughout the surround speakers. Sub activity is virtually non-existent, however, but the French dialogue comes through smoothly and authoritatively. There is no English dub available on this disc.
Interviews with Cast and Crew: You can watch these three interviews separately or use the Play All option.
Interview with Costa-Gavras (16:43) This chat, with Annette Insdorf of Columbia University, covers the director’s entire career. Naturally, there’s a special emphasis on Capital, and Costa-Gavras elaborates on his decision to change the book’s ending. Presented in HD.
Interview with Gabriel Byrne: (10:14) The actor talks about what drew him to the project and working with Costa-Gavras almost 30 years apart. (He previously appeared in the director’s 1983 film Hanna K.) Presented in standard definition.
Behind the Scenes with Gad Elmaleh: (18:58) Watching his work in this film, you’d never know Elmaleh rose to prominence as a comedian. This amusing collection of on-the-set footage shows the performer collaborating with his director and keeping things loose during the shoot. Presented in standard definition.
Capital lands in an unusual place among movies that address financial malfeasance. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is probably considered the gold standard. However, this movie is also not quite as breezily diligent as Margin Call or Too Big to Fail. And its uninviting portrayal of the upper echelons of the economic mountaintop makes it feel like the anti-Wolf of Wall Street.
For better and worse, the movie goes in a different direction with its protagonist. Even though Capital isn’t as thrilling or purely entertaining as the films I just mentioned, I admire the incredible amount of skill on display here and Costa-Gavras’ insistence on going dark.