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Adult Viewing: Costa-Gavras's "Adults in the Room"

The director best known for political thrillers has made an essential but misunderstood film about the Greek economic crisis.
David Cairns
When you're known for one thing—in the case of Franco-Greek director Costa-Gavras, the political thriller—despite having done a lot more than one thing, and your latest film (you're 86) is something a bit different, I suppose it's natural that critics may have trouble processing that. But it's still strange to me whenever paid audience members, whose job it is to watch films, don't seem able to actually see what's in front of them. In this case, that thing is Costa-Gavras's new drama, Adults in the Room.
A theme that nearly all of the director's work has dealt with, and which he's been kind enough to explain in interviews, is the social trap: human beings make systems to organize their lives, and then become trapped by them. Whether it's money (a cunning conceptual invention that makes trade easier, but winds up being a barrier between us and everything we want), or the legal system (a lot of courtroom dramas in the oeuvre, from Section Speciale to Music Box to Hanna K.), or national boundaries—almost everything we've constructed to help our lives has become a trap at some point.
Adults in the Room, from the memoir of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, is kind of a departure for the director in the sense that it's not a thriller, though it's very excitingly shot, but it also stands as a prime example of this theme. A left-wing government is elected as Greece suffers under disastrous austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the banks to cope with colossal debts unwisely incurred by a previous administration. And Varoufakis (the charismatic Christos Loulis), an economist but a complete newcomer to politics, finds that democracy is irrelevant when money is involved: those who control the debt control the country, and the Eurocrats are completely beholden to the "troika" of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It doesn't matter what the Greek electorate voted for: policy will be set in order to service the debt.
The film follows Varoufakis, smart but unschooled in politics, as his friend the new prime minister sends him around Europe trying to negotiate a deal that will allow Greece relief from servicing its crippling debts: a chance to get back on its feet. But it's a Kafkaesque nightmare: the fact that Tory austerity-pusher George Osborne is one of the more sympathetic listeners may tell you how bad things are. There is a system in place for the common good, and it must be obeyed—even if it isn't for the common good.
Costa-Gavras has made films critiquing the coup of the Greek colonels (Z), America's adventurist foreign policy in South America (State of Siege, Missing), the Israel-Palestine conflict (Hanna K,), hate groups in the south (Betrayed), and the migrant crisis (Eden Is West), showing an incredible knack for not only focussing on urgent contemporary issues, but finding the dramatic means to illuminate them. Perhaps here he's fallen foul of the rapidity of modern political developments: he's made a film in which the European Union is the heavy, just as Brexit, Trump, and other nationalist movements make it seem like the under dog. Varoufakis himself has explained that, despite its imperfections, the E.U. is a force for good.
That doesn't invalidate the film, it just means that you not only have to think, you have to keep thinking after seeing it.
As writer and director, Costa-Gavras has spoken a little regretfully of the fact that to tell this story, you have to shoot a lot of people in rooms talking. This isn't the story of the human cost of austerity, but of the impersonal forces that create it, forces administered by people without either malice or any real sense of responsibility, moving parts of a great machine whose necessity they dare not question.
Fortunately for us, this filmmaker has always been one of the most dynamic: the Costa-Gavras reframing, whereby a stable shot violently transforms to a new angle by panning, tilting, tracking, zooming or some combination of any of the four, is much in evidence. If the trade press critics, who slated the film at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, stopped worrying that the film is composed mostly of committee meetings and actually considered the effect of the choices displayed—claustrophobic and oppressive, yet propulsive and tense, wildly inventive compositionally and creating beautiful effects out of rather lifeless official proceedings by lifeless people in sterile environments—they might be able to see what's in front of them, and engage with the ideas instead of complaining that Alexandre Desplat's music for this Greek story is too Greek.
The other thing that's been ignored is the film's humor. Varoufakis is a witty man, and also an amusing figure, a leather-jacketed naif in a world robotic operatives, and the comedy throughout is Kafkaesque. (Kafka also doesn't get enough credit for being funny.) Costa-Gavras, in fact, makes very funny films, though the stories are generally dark and political and deadly serious. Somehow, in documenting the absurdity of these systems which entrap us, he's able to remain true to the Important Issues while uncovering a lot of absurdity. Some of this is his cinematic playfulness, inherited from the French New Wave at whose knees he learned—so that it seems quite natural to me that this movie should feature a dance-off starring Angela Merkel—and some of it is the inherent madness of mankind.
Our worst excesses, if you can suspend your natural horror for a moment, do have an appalling comedy to them.


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