The newly appointed CEO of a giant European investment bank works to hold on to his power when an American hedge fund company tries to buy out his company.
The 2008 financial crash has spawned a spate of films attempting to frame its multivalent causes and catastrophic effects. Documentaries like Inside Job (2010) and American Casino (2009) offer cross-sections of a banking industry gone wild due to decades worth of deregulation and blatant redistribution of wealth from workers’ paychecks and pensions to the coffers of the rich. Although films like Margin Call (2011) and Too Big to Fail (2011) directly offer fictionalized accounts of the crisis, the more interesting fictional portrayals are those that deal more generally with predatory behavior and the suffusion of capital into our everyday lives like Spring Breakers (2012), The Bling Ring (2013), The Great Gatsby (2013), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
These films teeter constantly between an immense attraction of a completely commodified lifestyle and repulsion at the consequent hollowing out of humanity that it entails. This ambivalence is not entirely surprising, since such films emerge from a commercial film industry that normally serves as one of the primary ideological bulwarks of global capitalism. Charged with both responding to audiences’ deep uncertainty about the ill-effects of capitalism and appealing to financial capital’s need for ideological support in order to continue receiving its investments, the commercial film industry can only address a capitalist critique at best obliquely in order to not too strongly bite the hand that feeds it.
Costa-Gavras’ Capital, however, stands uniquely apart from the fray, due to its independent financing and relatively critical perspective of its director. This is not to say, unfortunately, that it’s a superior film to the others. Although it offers a rather savage critique of capitalism and the banking industry in particular, it also fails to adequately imagine capitalism’s appeal and ability to sustain its inhumane and self-destructive practices.
Capital immerses viewers within the world of financialization where the world of commodities has been usurped by those of investments and ceaseless trading. Building infrastructure and producing material goods have been dismissed as inefficiencies. In their Ethereal Shadows: Communications and Power in Contemporary Italy, Franco Berardi, Marco Jacquemet, and Gianfranco Vitali have deemed such an environment “semiocapital”, where language and appearance trumps that of material reality. At one moment within the film, Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), the new CEO of Phenix bank, asks one of his advisors, “What exactly are we selling?” The advisor responds, “I thought you would tell me”.
In this world of post-industrial capitalism, products become secondary to the ceaseless quest of increasing shareholders’ profits. Marc wants to raise Phenix’s stock prices by emulating the “cowboy” banking system of the United States. His guide into this netherworld is Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), a high-stakes American shareholder who we eventually learn wants to plunder Phenix in the process. Dittmar’s first word of advice is to stop investing in products and instead pursue massive global layoffs. It doesn’t matter if such layoffs are needed. The action alone provides the appearance of efficiency and streamlining. As one of Marc’s other advisors notes, “In this economic situation, any good news, even fake, is welcome”.
Linguistic exchange becomes the primary means for semiocapital. Berardi, et al. write: “Simulation becomes the decisive element in the determination of value. And when simulation becomes central to the processes of production, it is possible, or rather probable, that lies, deceit, and fraud will become a regular part of economic life” (Ethereal Shadows 50-51). This has been verified by Karen Ho’s incredible ethnographic study of Wall Street in her book Liquidated. She painstakingly documents how most investment banking layoffs, contrary to popular illusion, actually lose money and create more inefficiencies in the process.
Wall Street itself, Ho concludes, is a place of incredible waste: “the point is to be dynamic, to simply get out of products instead of improve them, to grow without planning the proper support infrastructure, to make money immediately” (277). Although 7,000 layoffs prove sufficient among Phenix bank analysts within Capital, Dittmar asserts that 10,000 will send a stronger message to stockholders. The immense personal damage that such unnecessary additional cuts will produce remains irrelevant to the bottom line.
The dematerialization of reality for that of profits manifests itself visually within the film with the endless appearance of screens throughout it—whether they be handheld or wall-mounted. In one scene, Marc stands on a stage between an audience of suited Phenix stockbrokers before him and a large monitor behind him with thousands of quadrants of televised faces of the company’s staff. Already the visuals relate the hierarchy between jobs within the company. Stockbrokers are deemed important enough to physically be present to hear Marc’s speech, whereas employees are simply virtually patched-in, a part of the background like wallpaper.
However, as Marc speaks about creating a questionnaire to identify sexism and abuse within the company— all a ruse to justify mass layoffs under the excuse of an ethical inquiry— the staff responds positively by wildly clapping for such a proposal while the stockbrokers sit quietly in shocked disbelief. This once again hints at the hierarchical and hostile work environment of investment banking, where stockbrokers rule the roost and staff are dismissed as brainless drones. As a result, most abuse flows one way from stockbrokers to the staff.
As the clapping increases behind him, Marc turns towards the monitors, becoming encompassed within its glow and praise and all but ignoring the stockbrokers for the rest of the scene. The spectacle proves its allure in its praise for Marc’s empty words. The scene also reveals how ethics itself has become a linguistic commodity to ironically be used in this case for completely unethical actions of unneeded mass layoffs. But reality no longer matters as appearance reigns supreme. The gesture towards ethics becomes more important than ethical actions, not much different than Starbucks promoting corporate responsibility on its webpage while union-busting against workers who want more than starvation wages, or Amazon praising the value of its customers while exploiting its workers by keeping them in unconditioned warehouses of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and minimizing breaks and rests to the detriment of their health.
Although Marc is highly aware of his inhumane actions, he justifies them by naturalizing capitalism’s exploitative practices. When one of Phenix’s experts on Japanese markets, Maud (Celine Sallette), asks Marc about how he can live with himself as he fires workers and destroys their lives to enrich stockholders, he replies, “We’re playing a game. It’s planetary. No one can quit and say, ‘I won’t play anymore.’” As Ho has shown, such justifications plague the halls of Wall Street, where such market-centered assumptions “prevented investment bankers from understanding their own role in constructing their downsizing, not to mention market cycles and crises themselves” (Liquidated 238).
Yet such self-serving justifications are not the only appeal of Wall Street and capital to people. And this is precisely where Capital grows weakest. Marc might assert that his goal is ever more power, but we never see convincing accounts of the seduction of power. The film suggests Marc’s growing fascination with a supermodel named Nassim (Liya Kebede) as the source of this seduction, but their moments together are rather dull.
The club sequence where Nassim and Marc ingest pills seems dated and cliché, the unmoored ’90s rave suddenly appearing like an unwanted guest within the film. Even Marc’s eventual rape of Nassim near the film’s end fails to capture the brutality and inhumanity underlying it by only having it appear briefly on the screen without really documenting its horrors. The film seems uncomfortable at being visceral, regardless of if it is pleasurable or horrible.
A coldness suffuses the entire film, starting, surprisingly enough, with Elmaleh’s performance. Elmaleh has a deeply expressive face when doing standup comedy, his primary profession. Yet throughout Capital he remains expressionless, with his cold blue eyes relentlessly evaluating and ranking those before him. He is a character disconnected in part from his world and critical of it.
At the film’s end, as he is surrounded by a roomful of clapping stockholders, he comments in voice-over, “They’re children. They’re having fun. And they’ll keep having fun until it all blows up.” Although this is true, one wonders if Marc can really maintain such critical distance and successfully operate within the world of high finance.
Ho notes that although stockbrokers and investment bankers might in part be critical of what they do, they also deeply rationalize and/or minimize their exploitative practices. This later element is perhaps best seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) refuses to leave his company even though he has racketeering charges pending against him. He relates his emotional connection to the company he created through an extremely sentimentalized story whereby he recounts how he helped a single mom, who is now one of the top earners for the company, by giving her a pay advance when he first met her.
As he elaborates his story, male and female employees begin to blubber and cry, since Jordan can so successfully weave a story of uplift into the company’s predatory practices of enticing poor people to invest and lose their savings into bogus stocks. This is the power of capitalism: to use sentimentality and highlight individual exceptions to deflect attention from its general path of destruction and disregard for all life.
Yet Capital completely misses this point. Its cold style can neither engage with the sentimentality that capital uses as subterfuge nor fully immerse itself within the allure of the spectacle; this feature, as I have argued recently on PopMatters (“Living Inside the Cliché: ‘Spring Breakers'”), is one of Spring Breakers’ greatest strengths. Instead, the film seems to be in disbelief of its main character, not unlike Marc’s uncle who accuses him during dinner how he bleeds people three times as worker, customer, and citizen by creating mass layoffs, foisting high-interest debt on people, and dissolving any human rights protection to be offered by the nation state.
He asks, “How do you cope?” The film seems at an equal loss to explain Marc’s ability as a human being to cope with his inhumane actions.
At its worst, Capital emulates the very sexism that plagues high finance in its rather trivial portrayal of female characters. Diane (Natacha Regnier), Marc’s wife, serves as nothing more than as a moral beacon for Marc by advising him to give up finance and go back to teaching. But we never understand her attraction to Marc or her own desires. Nassim serves more as an unobtainable trophy for Marc to pursue than a fully-fledged character.
Maud has the most depth of all the women, even though she occupies the least amount of screen time. She’s an expert in the Japanese economy and is a best-selling author. She is both skeptical of Marc, but also senses that he has his doubts about Phenix. She even attempts to encourage him to write an exposé on the financial world that she will assist him with. Marc’s ambivalence seems to be mirrored in her. Their interactions, unlike all the rest, suggest a deep connection and understanding. But this remains underdeveloped as Marc remains single-mindedly under the sway of saving his career in high finance.
Ultimately, an asceticism plagues Capital, as if it is always on the outside of its characters and cannot truly grasp the world they inhabit. This is verified in the DVD’s rather paltry extras: an interview with Costa-Gavras and Byrne and footage of Elmaleh on the set. We learn nothing more than the most rudimentary insights. Byrne unintentionally describes one of the film’s major weaknesses when he notes that it doesn’t have emotionally complex characters.
More than that, Capital fails to identify the allure of capital, so its attraction becomes an enigma. Why would people like Marc sacrifice his relationship with his wife as well as his own humanity in its pursuit? Why would people work jobs that only pay starvation wages? Why do students allow massive debt to overtake them while pursuing a college degree?
Although the film gestures towards the power of capital’s spectacle in the ubiquitous screens that suffuse its narrative, we always remain on the outside, never fully entering into the narcissism and pleasure that it must hold. Like one of the recently unemployed members from Phenix who unsuccessfully attempts to speak with Marc outside corporate headquarters, we are left in the cold, squinting through the building’s reflective surface unable to fully see inside.