Business, Economics and Jobs

The financial crisis on the silver screen


CANNES, France — At the Cannes Film Festival — where rich people gather to show off expensive clothes and sip fine champagne — the global financial crisis seems very far away. 

On the silver screen, however, two of the festival's feature films brought the crisis to Cannes and illustrated how differently it is approached on either side of the Atlantic.

American director Oliver Stone has followed up on his 1987 "Wall Street" with this year's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBoeouf, Josh Brolin and Carey Mulligan. Meanwhile, Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard premiered "Socialism," examing greed and power from a European perspective. 

Both films condemn greed (and the excess of investment banking), but in very different styles.   On the one hand, Oliver Stone presents a fast-paced story about the character Gordon Gekko, who returns to Wall Street and its recklessness after serving extended time in prison for money laundering, securities fraud and racketeering. The message is not hard to deduce: “Greed is not only good — it has become legal,” the character says.

On the other hand, Godard, famous for radical artistic choices, doesn’t really bother to make sure that the viewer can follow the story, one of impressionistic profiles of people with diverse philosophies. For example, he did not include complete subtitles in English. When a character says in French, “money is a public good,” the English subtitle reads, “money public good.”

This decision makes Godard’s movie impossible to export to the English-speaking market, and it surely prevented many critics at the festival from fully understanding the dialogue. To make matters worse, other dialogue in Russian and German did not have any captions at all. As film critic Agnes Poirier wrote, “Godard rejects a world seemingly brought together by globalisation but which, in fact, has created a new cultural Babel in which the new lingua franca, English, doesn't pacify nor unify. ‘Don't translate, learn languages,’ said Godard.”

Those who are able to understand Gordard’s attack on greed will find it sharp and witty. When an old and wealthy character is asked, “Have you seen that they banned fiscal paradises?” he cynically answers “All right, then, we will stay in hell.” A succession of slot machine shot aboard a cruise suggest the absurdity and obscenity of greed. “Money was invented not to look at people in the eyes,” says one of the characters in “Socalism.”

In Stones’s movie, although the abuses of investment banks and traders are denounced, there is also a fascination with the power conveyed by money and the shrewdness it takes to make it big in Wall Street.

"Gekko the insider trader, the guy who destroyed companies, who destroyed people, was a very well-written villain and people are attracted to villains," said Michael Douglas at a press conference. "We never anticipated that all these people in business school would just be ranting and raving that this was the person that they wanted to be. And yet 22 years later I bet that a lot of those MBA students are heading up these investment banking companies."

But "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is not just a story about money and power, it is also about family relationships, featuring Gekko’s attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

“Socialism” also has a family story: It is the tale of leftist intellectual parents who, once a year, grant their two children a special treat — they allow them to spend the entire day debating philosophical and political ideas. It is surely a very European leftist and old-fashioned vision of the ideal family.