Fading Rebel Music: On Costa-Gavras’ “Adults in the Room”

Still from Adults in the Room (2019).

Adults in the Room Costa-Gavras’ 2019 film, released at the cusp of the pandemic, differs greatly from the book of the same title by Yanis Varoufakis, though relying upon the Greek economics professor’s account of events surrounding the self-betrayal of the Greek left in its face-off with the European establishment. Filmed in a manner closely resembling movies made for television, with Adults Costa-Gavras’ sends a love-letter to the Greek people, from France–the director’s adopted homeland since the 1950s. The film expresses Costa-Gavras’ warmth to his people, a consoling gift in an excruciating moment, an antidote to the hysteria fomented in those years by Western European mainstream media, which singled out the small Balkan state– the only Balkan Eurozone member after Slovenia– for bearing unique responsibility for the deepening crash of European banking systems. The second film ever set in the octogenarian director’s former homeland since the 1969 Z, Adults contrasts starkly within his oeuvre.

Z revealed the chaos of military dictatorship– in the loose camera pans, unpredictably whipping around like in Godard’s French New Wave cinema. Or the believable lunacy of situations in which men in suits are shooting from fast vehicles, while nobody in the film understands why the men in suits are shooting– perhaps the essence of the era of military coups. Rebellious Z reverberated that at once carnal and spiritual cry of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba, celebrating the temperaments of a culture only willing to accept ideological extremes–anarchism, communism or outright militaristic fascism. For an Argentine contemplating his recent history, Z casts an extremely recognizable cinema-scape.

In Adults, contra-distinctly, everything is contained. The camera stays stable, as if on a wheeled scaffold. The sequence of scenes renders an impression that the director hoped for its airing on Greek television. The lighting, clear and constant. Dramatic conflict, rather than violent or boundless, remains bureaucratic, cruel but cordial. In the most violent scene, a young Brussels clerk lunges forth shouting hysterically at Christos Loulis (playing the ephemeral Greek SYRIZA finance minister) “When do I get my money back?” Security guards easily restrain the bully, who sports the schoolboyish demeanour of a university-bred aspiring Eurocrat.

Where is the drama? Inevitably, conflicts between EU technocrats pitted against the academic wiles of Varoufakis, unfold with a bureaucratic tenor.

Costa-Gavras’ surprisingly light-hearted film misses many opportunities for dramatic escalation, psychological depth and characterization. This failure is not only aesthetic, but also political, given the screenplay’s dependence on the memoir of professor-turned-politician Varoufakis. Loulis, exuding a background in classical Greek theatre, talks as if wearing a toga: his Varoufakis remixes Socrates the truth-teller, Diogenes the homeless ascetic philosopher, and Neo from The Matrix: a simple, earnest and austere prophet, neither affluent or cosmopolitan, who accidentally enters politics, and simply wants to pose sincere questions, to get people in power to reflect on their actions– as if power works that way. “I set out to compromise, but not be compromised!” he announces upon accepting the nomination from Alexis Tsipras. The corruption of the political world alienates and confuses the messianic mystic and can only tempt him to present the resignation letter which he famously kept prepared in his pocket. (The real Varoufakis advised Papandreou’s PASOK administration and has always maintained ties to his country’s political class.)

Costa-Gavras-Loulis’ Varoufakis expresses shock at the European Union’s powerholders unreceptiveness for good arguments or the truth displayed in PowerPoint presentations with stats. Unfortunately, this slates close to what remains Varoufakis’ strategy as politician: the hope of “talking truth to power”, of delivering TEDx lectures, perhaps rivalling public intellectual gurus like Noah Yuval Harari or Ibram X Kendi, until the upper middle classes and elites finally fall under the spell of a brilliant man’s verbal elucubrations. If only the psychology of power worked that way. This was the Hamletian tragedy of SYRIZA’s PhD-saturated leadership, which Costa-Gavras misses altogether, but which should have been exploited by artistic necessity, towards an artwork that transcended limitations of partisan politics.

Despite the hypocrisy and callousness with which the powerful sought to blame Greece for the glitch in the financial order, characters remain cordial, susceptible to rationality. Actress Josiane Pinson’s role as Christine Lagarde, largely mute, resembles Judi Dench’s quieter moments performing regal figures like Queen Victoria. Costa-Gavras-Pinson’s Lagarde is tame, dignified in poise, always even-headed. She pouts, or else she frowns, eloquent, never crazed, trying to urge men onto the side of reason and temperance, ultimately representing the status quo. Costa-Gavras squanders satirical potential in this politically correct depiction of LaGarde– a responsibility shared with Dr Varoufakis’s portrayals in the memoir. Nowhere do we see Lagarde’s predisposition to always shine as potential mercenary of the powerholders– as Argentines witnessed during her tenure as frequent and very corrupt guest of the authoritarian Argentine Macri presidency from 2016-2019, before her promotion to the chair of the European Central Bank. Nowhere do we meet the unhinged Lagarde who wrote “Use me.” in her bizarre leaked letter to Sarkozy.

Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, played by Daan Schuurmans, also completely misses dramatic opportunity to portray a miserable contemporary Jean Valjean. The minister nicknamed “De Dominee” “Reverend” by his compatriots in Dutch politics, was often likened to a Calvinist puritanical zealot. Many idiosyncrasies are attributed to Dijsselbloem– known for drinking glasses of full milk at gatherings where other politicians sip coffee or toast with alcohol, Dijsselbloem once drove a Clinton-inspired campaign against black Antillean “welfare-mamas” allegedly milking the Dutch Welfare State, before embarking on his more infamously ill-fated crusade to impose Lutheran values upon Southern European populaces. Many opportunities for richer characterizations went unfortunately lost on this screenplay, with minimal dialogue for any great actor not playing Varoufakis.

Unlike the memoir of the same title, the film nonetheless strives to tell an existentially larger story, featuring a different protagonist: the Greek middle class, seduced by the Trojan Horse of unsustainable Eurozone membership, then humiliated by an undemocratic machine, used as whipping-boy for European elites. Costa-Gavras personifies this group in Varoufakis’ spouse, Dana Stratou, or “Dea” played by Italian actress Valeria Giolino. In one scene Brussels technocrats come to visit the small apartment of the family Varoufakis: the Western envoys exploit Greek hospitality, marvelling at the fantastic food, digging in boorishly, while refusing serious discussion. One feels the fatigue of the weary, wise and patient Greek middle-class wife, trying to keep her household together and the unbearable guests, content. That too is fiction– Costa-Gavras’ homage to the stressed, depressed yet hospitable average Greek family. The real Stratou is potentially far more interesting: the heiress of “old money” Greek industrialists, who were expropriated by the left-leaning but corrupt PASOK government, (which Varoufakis served as economic advisor.)

Rather than a Disneyfied depiction of political intrigues surrounding the Greek Euro-crisis, Costa-Gavras should have used Shakespearean tragedies, and not Varoufakis’ autobiography, to guide his retelling.

Whenever a rebellious thought occurs to Christos Louilis’ Varoufakis, faint echoes of rebetiko music from Zorba the Greek tinkle on the soundtrack, spectral in the Euro-parliament’s antiseptic halls, before the rebel music dies down again. This fading-out of subversive spirit, along with the absurd politeness of all characters, best encapsulate the capitulation at the centre of the Greek Euro-debacle. Neither Varoufakis nor Tsipras had the bravery and vision to challenge or provoke power, as a Hugo Chavez or Lula-Da Silva would have. Their behaviour remained collegial with technocrats abroad, and within bounds acceptable to the anxious Greek middle-class progressives who supported and staffed SYRIZA, and for these reasons they stiffed the Greek working class.

In politics, one does not set out “to compromise, but not be compromised.” A leftist politician aims to win, rather– “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” as Guevara said, not Hasta el Compromiso–for the people. Compromise and disappointment are inevitable results, but never the pre-announced a priori aims of the conflict– except for amateurs and mediocrats. Off-cam, as Minister of Economics Varoufakis refused, against all insistence from comrades, to unseat Greek Central Bank director Yannis Stournaras, who became a local legend for having negotiated Greece’s miraculous 2001 entry into the EU and had likely advocated for Varoufakis’ position at Athens’ University. Varoufakis confesses in his memoir to having sought, bizarrely, to remain “friends” at all costs with Stournaras– as well as with Larry Summers, and Jeffrey Sachs. As New Democracy’s former finance minister, Stournaras naturally remained friendlier to Berlin and the Troika, than to any cooperation with newly elected anti-austerity activists. To an outsider, it all sounds like a football coach insisting his team play without its goalkeeper.

The idea that ruling elites are not relegated to their systemic functions, but can be converted by eloquence, prone to see the light after enough PowerPoint presentations–rather than bowing only to threats and the brutal and necessary material blackmail of power– is yet another folly spared from criticism, in Costas-Gavras’ lukewarm biopic and elsewhere in the idealist academicist left. Our enemies cannot be convinced by “Socratic” public speaking or good sportsmanship– but might be forced into a compromise, which requires a strategy.

Arturo Desimone (Aruba, 1984) is an Aruban-Argentine writer, poet and visual artist. His articles on politics previously appeared in  CounterPunch, DemocraciaAbiertaBerfrois UKDiem25news and elsewhere. Author of the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019) and the bilingual book “La Amada de Túnez” which  appeared in Argentina during the pandemic, he has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana.