Costa-Gavras’s Capital is more a funhouse-mirror panegyric (albeit on an exhausted topic) than the staid thriller promised by its press materials. Starring Gad Elmaleh as Marc, a Buster Keaton-dry functionary at one of France’s biggest banks, the movie attempts little to disguise its preachy side, instead cranking its brazenness up to match the unabashed grotesquerie and cash-is-king careerism of the modern banking lifestyle. Marc is cherry-picked by an ailing CEO as a temporary replacement; the older jackals on the board lick their lips in approval, barely hiding their enthusiasm at the chance for a coup. But when Marc lays off several thousands of employees, the bank’s value surges internationally, in large part on the basis of Marc’s instant notoriety, alternately captivating and terrifying the industry (and thus, world markets).
Marc is soon pressured to acquire a toxic Japanese firm called Mitzuko, opening up the possibility of sabotage from within. During an early negotiation at a Paris hotel suite, an American trader gazes out the window. Costa-Gavras’s camera dollies left, eventually settling the window’s gilded frame around the Eiffel Tower—the vista essentially suggesting a painting, and as such a potential purchase. This surrealist in-joke is one of many instances where it’s hard to discern whether Capital’s filmmaking is more subtle than its implications or vice versa. Later on, Marc leaves a dinner with his extended family and glimpses a living room crammed with his preteen son and his nieces and nephews, every kid tethered to their own smartphone or video-game controller. The declarations served up by these shots are unmissable, but the casualness of Costa-Gavras’s approach creates a jittery and alarming delay in the mind. Watching these gimmicks outrun their corollary indignations poses the question: If you must leave Capital disgusted, is it better to get there via comedy or outrage?
Even if by accident, Costa-Gavras’s attempted balance of pedantry and elbow-ribbing generally shakes out better than not. Outside the Mitzuko intrigue, Capital’s other main drag is Marc’s hilariously misguided obsession with a mysterious supermodel, Nassim (Liya Kedebe), who propels him to take “business trips” to London and Tokyo that never end remotely near how he wants them to. His first liaison with Nassim starts in a hot-pink-and-neon-blue BDSM club filled with elderly couples, and ends with her speeding away after teasing Marc to maybe “go back to your bank.” (She later asks him to cover her hotel bills, naturally making him want her even more.)
The opposite of titillating, these detours allows Gavras and Elmaleh to concentrate on the meat of Marc’s personality, distracting the film further away from its expected—indeed, inevitable—checklisting of indignant shrieks against the banks. Elmaleh, who normally works in French cinema as a face-planting clown, handily transforms Capital from a sporadically interesting film to an accomplishedly entertaining one. Every boardroom dick-measuring contest Marc steps into is simultaneously wafer-thin and beautifully acted, his eyes forever darting around, utterly severed from the words leaving his mouth. Whereas it took Oliver Stone two long hours to recognize Gordon Gekko’s lack of moral filling, Capital opens with the same emptiness guaranteed, like a retinal scan of nihilism—promising that things can only get weirder from there.