Before the subprime mortgage crisis began unfolding in 2008, causing chaos in world markets and misery among millions of homeowners, another financial apocalypse was already underway at one of France’s most prestigious banks.
A few weeks into the year, the Societe Generale discovered that Jerome Kerviel, a 31-year-old trader in its Paris headquarters, had taken out covert market positions of close to €50 billion, using a sophisticated arbitrage system to cover his tracks. When all was said and done, the bank suffered a loss of €4.9 billion and Kerviel was fired, sued, arrested and imprisoned, becoming the most famous Frenchman to ever sit in front of a Bloomberg Terminal and pay the price for it. (Part of the judge’s sentence required that Kerviel reimburse all of the money he lost—not an easy task considering he was also banned for life from the trading floor.)
Whether Kerviel was the rogue trader his employers claimed he was, or whether they were aware of his actions and turned a blind eye as long as he made them buckets of cash, has been the major question ever since the affair broke out. In The Outsider (L’Outsider), directed by Christophe Barratier (The Chorus) and adapted from Kerviel’s 2010 autobiographical account, the filmmakers clearly take the side of their young culprit, showing how he was caught in a Gordon Gekko-esque web of greed, machismo and unchecked high-wire capitalism, raking in millions for his bank—and much less for himself—until stock prices collapsed and the cat got out of the bag.
It’s certainly one way to tell such a story, although the major problem here is that unlike the Jordan Belson character in Martin Scorsese’s recent The Wolf of Wall Street—a film to which this one owes a severe amount of (collateralized) debt—Kerviel is hardly a seductive figure and more like a cog in the wheel, with actor Arthur Dupont (Now or Never) doing his best to add charisma to someone who often comes across as bland, unlikeable, though probably quite brilliant. Bolstered by Barratier’s typical directorial polish, including enough office tower shots to make a dozen American Express commercials, The Outsider plays like an elevated movie-of-the-week, offering a conventional take on a freakish financial case, with just enough topical interest to help the film pierce beyond French borders into foreign markets.
Tracing Kerviel’s tale from his first days as a middle office worker at the Societe Generale’s steel-and-glass HQ in Paris’ La Defense district, to the moment when his billion-dollar scheme unraveled, the script by Barratier and co-writer Laurent Turner heads in familiar directions for anyone who followed business headlines back in 2008, although it throws in one decent twist in the third act. (Along with the two screenwriters, there’s also someone who gets “an original idea by” credit, though it’s hard to imagine what’s so original about optioning a bestseller on the most mediatized banking fraud case in French history.)
While a few scenes in the film focus on Kerviel’s personal life—including a budding romance with a fellow SG employee (Sabrina Ouazani) that’s supposed to render him more sympathetic but just makes him seem more boring—the majority of the action is set on the testosterone-strewn trading floor where he and his fellow Masters of the Universe play poker with their bank’s funny money, making hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in profits per day. When Kerviel is promoted to the front office by his trash-talking, M&M-popping mentor, Fabien (Francois-Xavier Demaison), he becomes a quick study in the wrecking crew’s investing tactics, learning from his boss how to conceal trades under a “carpet” of shady transactions and accounts, in a technique that will ultimately prove his downfall.
Barratier manages to get some mileage out of the controlled frenzy and frat boy mentality of the floor, though what happens here—the strippers, the booze fests, eating a live goldfish—seems like nursery school stuff compared to the antics of Dicaprio and his boys in the Scorsese flick. If anything, The Outsider reveals that deplorable trader behavior can occur as much in France as it does elsewhere, while underlining how an ambitious country-bumpkin like Kerviel (he was born in Brittany to working-class parents) could be morally transformed by the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of high finance.
Despite efforts to make him a hero/victim of corporate greed, we hardly feel enough sympathy or hostility toward Kerviel on screen, and it’s likely that after nearly two hours watching him take down the French financial behemoth, most people will feel something closer to indifference. The filmmakers try at times to render the banker more human, especially with a subplot involving a colleague whose career takes a turn for the worse, but between that rather simplistic narrative device and the numbingly routine love story, there’s not much to grasp onto here wasn’t already reported in the news.
To his credit, Barratier knows how to dish out slick and entertaining dramedy for the masses—something already evident in his 2004 breakout hit, The Chorus—and he’s certainly made the only film about French stock traders to hold any sustained interest. But there’s a void at the center of his movie that could have been filled by better writing and characterization, going beyond the facts to deliver something more disturbing or passionate or, like Wolf, more surreal. Like the black hole into which Kerviel’s untold billions vanished, The Outsider takes something of potential value and makes it disappear before our eyes.
Production companies: Galatee Films, France 2 Cinema, Le Pacte, Gecko Films, Outside Films, Logline Studios
Cast: Arthur Dupont, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Sabrina Ouazani, Tewfik Jallab, Thomas Coumans
Director: Christophe Barratier
Screenwriters: Christophe Barratier, Laurent Turner, based on an original idea by Jerome Corcos and the book “L’Engrenage, memoirs d’un trader” by Jerome Kerviel
Producers: Jacques Perrin, Nicolas Mauvernay
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Emile Ghigo
Costume designer: Jean-Daniel Veuillermoz
Editor: Yves Deschamps
Composer: Philippe Rombi
Casting director: Sylvie Brochere
Sales: Le Pacte