A cracking good melodrama set in a contemporary world of high finance and low cunning, Costa-Gavras’ “Capital” nimbly plays on our worst memories of the 2008 economic meltdown with a persuasively detailed tale of boardroom politics, international banking, remorseless backstabbing and billion-dollar wheeling-and-dealing. Glossy pic should click with the same sophisticated ticketbuyers, downstreamers and vid renters fascinated by “Arbitrage” and “Margin Call.” In key arthouse markets with an older-skewing clientele, it also could trade on the cachet of being the latest effort from the director of “Z” and “Missing.”
Indeed, although the narrative consists largely of impeccably dressed business types doing nothing more (or less) dramatic than talking to each other in well-appointed offices, Costa-Gavras develops such a propulsively suspenseful pace — with no small assist from Armand Amar’s mood-enhancing Euro-tech score — that his drama comes across as the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page-turner you might purchase off the rack at an airport newsstand.
Inspired by “Le Capital,” a 2004 novel attributed to Stephane Osmont (reportedly the nom de plume of a real French banking industry vet), “Capital” follows the sudden rise and relentless plotting of Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), a hard-driven up-and-comer who becomes CEO of France’s (fictional) Phenix Bank after his predecessor suffers a heart attack on the golf course.
Board members figure the appointment is just a temporary measure, and indicate as much when they initially make a salary offer that Tourneuil takes as a condescending insult. But the new CEO has every intention of holding on to his job permanently, despite the ambivalence of his wife (Natacha Regnier), the child of an old-money family. “For you,” he tells her, not altogether lovingly, “wealth was long ago. For me, it’s the future.”
Tourneuil’s most helpful ally in his bid to maintain his position turns out to be Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), the gladhanding but hot-tempered head of a U.S. hedge fund with a large stake in Phenix. Rigule views Tourneuil as a useful pawn in his long-range plan to take complete control of the venerable French bank. Tourneuil, of course, has a much different role in mind for himself.
Working from a cleverly twisty script he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Grumberg and Karim Bouckercha, Costa-Gavras refuses to make things easy for the viewer, avoiding the cliche of a flawed protagonist in search of redemption. Instead, he obviously intends us to see Tourneuil as a thoroughgoing SOB whose one saving grace is his unapologetic self-awareness.
The helmer occasionally allows Elmaleh to break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, inviting one to share Tourneuil’s contempt for board members and other co-conspirators who support his reverse-Robin-Hood game plan. (He literally promises to rob the poor to fatten the rich, and is greeted with cheers.) At other points, the actor provides the point of view in fakeout scenes that pay off like the “Gotcha!” fantasies common in pics by another notable French auteur, Claude Lelouch.
Here and elsewhere, Elmaleh impresses with the utter fearlessness of his tightly coiled performance. Some may feel a bit sorry for Tourneuil as he is manipulated by a beautiful model (Lida Kebede) who teases him, and even borrows money from him, without ever making good on her seductive promise. But this subplot leads to a truly unsettling scene in which Elmaleh demonstrates just how tough the CEO can be when he’s crossed.
“Capital” boasts slick production values and a first-rate supporting cast. (Byrne amusingly devours huge swaths of scenery with uninhibited relish.) But its most effective selling point may be the word of mouth generated by viewers jazzed by having their worst suspicions about banks and other institutions brutally confirmed.
Incidentally, it will be interesting to see how many U.S. critics comment on Elmaleh’s physical resemblance to Rick Santorum, and how many will insist the pic echoes sentiments expressed in Mitt Romney’s notorious “47%” comments.