By Danny Peary
It’s always exciting when a new film by an old master is released. That Costa-Gavras is still directing movies at the age of eighty, decades after he made such powerful and influential political thrillers as Z, State of Seige, The Confession, and Missing (which won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), is cause enough for celebration. But it is especially gratifying that the Greek-born, naturalized French director continues to vigorously target those conducting atrocities in our world. In his classics, his villains were fascists; today they are our equally evil and powerful bankers. Capital is, as the production notes state, “set in the high stakes world of global finance,” where charming men in suits exhibit “ruthless ambition, power struggles, greed, and deception.” The premise: When the CEO of France’s Phenix Bank collapses on the golf course, Michiavellian young executive Marc Tourneuil (French comic Gad Elmaleh of Midnight in Paris) is crowned as his replacement. Those who appoint him assume he’ll be easy to manipulate but they don’t foresee that he’ll be as corrupted by money and power as them. Capital, fresh from playing at Hamptons International Film Festival, opens theatrically in New York this Friday at the Paris and Regal Union Square. In anticipation, I recently did these two brief interviews with the gentlemanly Costa-Gavras–it was thrill to meet one of my movie heroes–and his witty leading man, Gad Elmaleh.
Danny Peary: I read that soon after you arrived in Paris from Greece in 1951, you went to the Cinémathèque Française, and ironically, considering Capital, the first film you saw there was Erich von Stroheim’s silent epic, Greed.
Costa-Gavras (left): I still think about that. I was in France for fifteen days, going to the Sorbonne and trying to learn French correctly, and reading literature and start working on my degree. Then, a friend of mine said, “Let’s go to the Cinémathèque. And I discovered Greed. It was a movie that went on for three hours. It was a shock. I was not used to that kind of work. It did have an impact on me.
DP: Greed made you aware that films don’t have to have happy endings.
C-G: I was fascinated to see that it was possible in cinema to do something different from what I had seen. The Cinémathèque was inexpensive and it was close to the university, so I went every night and saw many movies. My ambition was to write things, and I said, “This is a kind of new art I would like to learn about.” [Note: Costa-Gravas has had two stints as president of the Cinémathèque Française.]
DP: I’m sure there were other films that had an impact on you. What about The Battle of Algiers, which came out a few years before your early films that attacked fascism and repression, Z, The Confession, and State of Siege?
C-G: It’s an amazing movie. Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solina took the true story of repression and wrote a great, great story. They made a perfect movie.
DP: What about Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, a satire or allegory about capitalism?
C-G: Yes, yes. Maybe I saw it and said, “This is great, I’d have liked to have done a movie like this.”
DP: Watching Capital, I was reminded of the surreal elements in Anderson’s film. Did that stick in your mind?
C-G: Probably. We’re all influenced by movies. We pick up things we saw from this movie or that one. Some people will say this film or that film looks like that other film, but I can’t say.
DP: About ten years before you made Capital, you stated that you wanted to make a film about money and the economic system.
C-G: Yes. At that time there was no crisis like today. But even then money was a problem that changed people drastically. Since then it has been happening more and more. When I used to go to Greece, people would ask me, “What are you doing now?” But in time, I discovered people began asking, “How much money are you making?” Money became the new religion.
DP: Ten years ago, would you have made the same movie as you did today?
C-G: No, no. It would have been a different movie. But it too would have been about the psychological changes brought on by money and how people want more and more goods. If I’d done the movie at the time, I’d have called it Family Business. It would have been the story of a family who are thieves in certain ways. They make some money, they get bigger and bigger. And their kids, when they grow up, decide not to do the same thing. It was the idea of the quality of the goods versus the quality of the life. That is the idea in Capital, but it’s told in a different way. I still say, “What’s behind this story is money.”
DP: Well, the subtitle for Capital is Money is the Master.
C-G: It’s not my subtitle, but they took a line said by one of the characters in the movie. Money becomes the master of a religion.
DP: Forty years ago you turned down The Godfather–another film about family, women being shoved to the background in a male-run world, and money, power, and territory–because you felt you didn’t know enough about America, but today could you have set Capital entirely here?
C-G: Maybe, but it would be completely different.
DP: You once said, “Art should make visible what is not seen in society.” How does that apply to Capital?
C-G: I think this is the goal of the cinema. People go to the show and they can learn something. They did that at theater productions in ancient Greece, and they do that in the shows of the major directors of the cinema. There’s always something about the society that we discover through the cinema. Capital shows things we do not see very clearly in society. We have bits of it every day in newspapers and on television, but we never have them all together with a character.
DP: To do research for your character, Marc Tourneuil, played by Gad Elmaleh, you sat down with bankers in France.
C-G: The major ones, yes.
DP: Did you like any of these guys? Were they charming?
C-G: Of course they’re charming and well educated. Most of them, in particular the ones who are very high, were respected by politicians, by everybody. They were surprised that they were meeting me. In the very beginning, I told them I’m doing a movie about banking and said, “If you’d like I’ll tell you more of the story.” It was funny because they said, “No, no, no.” At the end, quite all of them, told me that the banks have to be regulated or we’re going to have a catastrophe.
DP: So off-the-record they admitted that is what is needed globally, but I don’t think they would want that.
C-G: Later, when they were on television, they said, “If you regulate, you’ll kill us.” Their public explanation is that if you regulate the French banks, the unregulated American banks will become even bigger and eat them. This is their nice justification for not having regulation.
DP: Which gives banks the freedom to do things that are evil, like laying off workers for profit?
C-G: Evil and legal–everything they do is legal and admired by the majority of the people. I remember before the crisis, the newspapers wrote that they were making lots of money, its shares were going up and up–it’s great, it’s extraordinary. There were very few people who were critical and saying that we were headed for a very difficult period, much less a catastrophe.
DP: In the movie, Marc Tourneuil says confidently that governments will never dare to regulate banks. But is regulation of the banks your solution to the economic crisis, something that will make the middle class reappear?.
C-G: I don’t have the solution, but what I’ve heard everywhere is that they have to regulate. President Obama has said that. Maybe the solution is in-between regulation and no regulation.
DP: It’s like the world lets big bankers be evil. To become the CEO of a giant bank, can you be ethical?
C-G: No. In a book I read years ago , the author, the president of the credit union, said that it’s impossible to get regulation because the heads of the banks and the stockholders who tell them what to do, are very greedy. So there cannot be ethics.
DP: That’s similar to what we say about people in government here. They all have ties to big business, so nobody’s who’s elected to a high office is untainted and their ethics have already been compromised.
C-G: Alan Greenspan said, “We believe in self-regulation.” But that is impossible. There will never be self-regulation because the world is a jungle and everyone wants to be the biggest lion.
DP: Where does Marc fit in? Once he becomes the CEO-in-waiting, he seems more likable than the greedy men he deals with. But is he better?
C-G: He probably starts out as a better person. He says to his wife that what he wants most is to be respected. But as the story develops, he puts aside his ethics, I think. He knows what’s happening, he knows good from bad. And when he has the opportunity to do something good, he doesn’t do it.
DP: Does that make him different from the others, that he knows the difference between right and wrong and he still does wrong?
C-G: They all know.
DP: You think Gabriel Byrne’s character, Dittmar, who operates an American hedge fund and attempts a hostile takeover of Marc’s bank, knows he’s doing wrong but doesn’t care?
C-G: His strategy, his target, is to get more money, more money, more money. He says, “If we don’t do it we will be out.”
DP: Which is the system.
DP: Actually, what Marc is doing is gaming the system. He understands the rules of the game so can manipulate them.
C-G: He understands and goes up and up in power. He likes going up, he wants to be king. He gets rid of all women who have with different propositions, just to have the presidency. He pushes away his wife, his son, his family–and even the woman he admires who wants to write a book with him. Nothing counts for him except his position at the top.
DP: His wife turns out to be the big disappointment. You’d think she has some kind of morality and can control him a little bit but she doesn’t really try.
C-G: She tries at the end. She tells him, “Write books and we’ll have a nice life” And then she says to him. “If you’d like to be, again, president, you won’t find me at home.” And even then he decides to not go with her and goes back to his bank.
DP: In the film’s production notes, you write about Marc’s character in the source novel, Le Capital, and “the ferocity” in which author Stéphane Osmont portrays him. In the movie, we see Darwinism at work and a dog-eat-dog world, but do we actually see Marc’s ferocity?
C-G: Yes. He’s not armed with Kalashnikov and killing people, but he decides to fire hundreds of people to make a profit. That’s ferocity.
DP: You chose to hire France’s most popular stand-up comic, Gad Elmaleh, to play Marc.
C-G: Yes, but I told him, “You’re not doing a comedy. You’re serious, don’t use the tricks of comedy, don’t create a one-man show. I hired him because from the very beginning, for the audience, he’s sympathetic.
DP: Why do you want him to be sympathetic?
C-G: So people will say, “Oh, this Marc seems to be a good guy, let’s see what he does that’s good.”
DP: And we’re surprised when he goes in the opposite direction. He’s clear-sighted, he knows that all the bankers’ greed is setting the stage for disaster, but he jokes that it’s disaster for us and not for his bank.
C-G: The bankers, the people who deal with a lot of money, have the power in democracies. And our democracies are very weak in front of the money.
DP: In the production notes, Capital is termed a “darkly comic drama.” There is humor in the film, but is the word “comic” applicable?
C-G: I wouldn’t call it that, but sometimes you may not have comedy but you have irony, sarcasm. We have situations that become comical for us because it’s all so unbearable, so excessive.
DP: Your target in this film is not a fascist dictatorship but banks. So is Capital, like your classic films, a political movie?
C-G: They are all political. Roland Barthes said we can analyze all movies politically. And I completely agree with that.
DP: And its subject is the perfect subject for our age, which is the perfect time for the release of your movie.
C-G: I never thought about that. I started working on it four or five years ago, without thinking about whether it would come out at the right time. In the meantime the global economic crisis happened. So I think it is a good time for it to come out and let’s hope the audience will agree.
Gad Elmaleh (left)
Danny Peary: It’s nice meeting you. When I say that, what’s your response?
Gad Elmaleh: “It’s nice meeting you”?
DP: I am referring to the bit you did with Jerry Seinfeld on his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” when he taught you that if you say to someone “It’s nice to meet you” you want them to continue the conversation, but if you say “It was nice to meet you” you’re telling them the conversation is over and they should leave.
GE: I remember. I translated that and I do it in France and it works! When someone stops me in the street, I say it was nice to have met them and they leave.
DP: In my opinion, the key scene in this whole movie that defines your character, Marc Tourneuil, is when he goes home for an informal family lunch and he’s still wearing a suit and a tie. Was that a big choice?
GE: It’s funny you say that because that is my favorite scene in the movie. I said something to the producer one day and she didn’t like what I said. I said, “I wish all of the movie would look like this scene.” Because it’s where Marc is human. He’s talking to his family, but he’s still into his finances and banking. I never thought to talk to Costa about the suit thing. It’s interesting that he wears the suit. He’s with the family physically but he’s not.
DP: It seemed to me that it was an indication he’s fighting off guilt about disregarding his working-class roots. Because surely the other people in the banking world that he deals with don’t have families like that. Marc is probably the only one who knows there are good options available but he still deliberately takes the wrong path.
GE: Yeah, that makes sense. He understands what his angry uncle says about laying off workers but ignores him. And as he is leaving he looks in the room where all the kids are playing video games and he could go sit there with them, but he leaves for his job.
DP: He knows better, that’s the real shame about him.
GE: This is how you know he is a bad person. He’s not a crazy man, he doesn’t have fantasies and then come back to reality. I think Costa wanted to show that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
DP: Marc’s very calculating. But he has to be to succeed in banking because, as he says in the beginning, everybody wants to screw him.
GE: I think these guys are very paranoid. Everybody wants to screw me but I’ll screw them first. It’s like politics, you know.
DP: I think what Costa-Gavras wanted when he cast you, was to have us instantly identify with Marc and then be disappointed in him. We think at some point Marc’s going to turn out to be a good Robin Hood as opposed to someone who takes from the poor to give to the rich. But he doesn’t.
GE: One day I was talking to Costa and I asked, “Why did you choose me, because I’m a comedian, I’m a funny actor.” He said to me something interesting–”People will have empathy and affection and sympathy and because they like him, they’re going to feel worse.”
DP: Marc has relationships with three women. Do you seem him playing three different roles with them?
GE: He has a solid base with his wife. He’s challenged by the younger French woman in London who is an expert on finance in Japan. It’s a cerebral erection. And with the model, it’s all sexual. But I think he’s really the same person with the three women. He needs those different things, you know. With the model, he thinks he needs to do something with all his money so he gives it to her. I know real stories about these kinds of guys.
DP: He’s kind of a buffoon with the supermodel as she keeps stringing him along and keeping him out of reach. He’s erudite and calculating at all other times but with her everything goes out the window. I’m reminded of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee–a man can be rich and intelligent but he sees a pretty young girl and loses control.
GE: Yes, it’s like an Achilles’ heel. Its funny that it’s always with politicians that this happens. Look what happened with Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He’s brilliant and powerful but he kills himself with the scandal.
DP: How long could you spend with Marc before he’d drive you crazy?
GE: I would be really fascinated for a few hours. But I wouldn’t go on vacation with him or spend a week talking to him. I think he must be interesting and smart and I’d ask him some advice about money, but nothing else.
DP: Is there any hope that Marc will become a better person in the future?
GE: No. I’ve been asked so many times why he doesn’t go off with the Japan expert, and I say, “That would have been the American version of the movie.” He’d go to her and give the money back and there would be nice music. But this is Costa-Gavras, so it’s a different movie.
DP: I know you were wanting to do your stand-up comedy routine in English here in America, so was doing the English-speaking scenes in the movie good preparation?
GE: Yes. I now have done my routine in English. It was very good, very challenging, very hard. I like this challenge of performing in front of an American audience when nobody knows me I show up on stage and I have to be funny. It’s just funny or not, and I like that.
DP: Are you called “the Jerry Seinfeld of France” because you do observational comedy?
GE: Yes, sociological. And I’m getting laughs in English!
DP: Where do you think Capital fits into your overall career?
GE: It made me realize I’m definitely a comedy man. I loved what I did with Costa, but comedy is my thing, what I love the most. There are a few moments in the movie that are a little but funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s much harder to be funny than to be serious in a movie.
DP: Well, it was nice meeting you.
GE: Yes, it was nice meeting you, too!