By Armond White
In a third of the time it took Olivier Assayas to turn 70s terrorism into a epic hipster rave (replete with post-punk soundtrack) in Carlos, Costa-Gavras exposes the nature of social and financial compromise–moral terrorism–in Capital. This timely story of how Phenix Bank, a French financial institution, replaces its ill-and-aging CEO with a younger man, Marc Tourneuil (Gad Emaleh), who turns out to be cagier than the puppet the board of directors expected, dramatizes a current concern with global chaos.
Immediacy has always been Costa-Gavras’ gift. Instead of Assayas’s apathetic hindsight, Costa-Gavras revives the excitement of his political films Z, The Confession and State of Siege–movies that made him a combo Eisenstein-Hitchcock of the era–where fascination with the self-interests of political parties took the form of thrillers–politically engaged noirs, you could say. Tourneil is motivated by arrogance as much as greed which Costa-Gavras understands to be the basis of banking philosophy that, in the 21st century has come to replace political ideology.
Capital shows this even more clearly than Oliver Stone’s recent Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. Costa-Gavras–the experienced old Lefty-doesn’t pretend to clean-up Wall Street with regulation and prosecution; he also knows better than to pretend that Socialist beliefs are sufficient. The very smart, privileged, overachieving characters in Capital are aware of operating within corruption–their intelligence takes the form of keeping their heads above filthy water.
Tourneuil operates on intellectual conceit, suspicious of everyone except his wife on whom, in the European way, he cheats when enticed by the exotic supermodel Nassim (Liya Kebede) who typically trades her body out of vanity and luxury, having made no evaluation of her soul. Capital is a breeze to watch largely because Costa-Gavras’s narrative skills suggest a functioning moral compass. It’s a dark social vision, yet it isn’t cynical. Tourneuil represents an inherent honesty that his adversary Dittmar Regule (Gabriel Byrne), a Brit acting from the surety of American might, lacks. There’s no Occupy sentimentality in Capital which may explain why the media has not embraced it, but neither is there the simplistic, self-satisfaction of J.C. Chandor’s sophomoric Margin Call or TV-style sarcasm like Ridley Scott’s ridiculous The Counselor.
Costa-Gavras’ basic moral approach to political crime provides a clear-eyed view of things gone wrong and gets at the deeper reasons why; his dubious hero exposes the workings of greed, the psychological incentives behind high-level survival. Working-class sentimentality is dead in 21st century art and finance. Assayas is too cool to care but at least Costa-Gavras won’t lie about it and that–as with Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head–is the essence of the politically-engaged action movie. Welcome its return.
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