L'Ivresse du pouvoir

(The Comedy of Power, Germany/France - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Francois Berleand, Patrick Bruel, Marilyne Canto, Robin Renucci, Thomas Chabrol
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol & Odile Barski
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Composer: Matthieu Chabrol

"I am not interested in the image of justice, I am interested in justice" - Jeanne Charmant-Killman

Once again in Otto Preminger mode, Claude Chabrol delivers a distanced judicial inspection of a culture of corruption. Eschewing the usual theatric-laden staples of good triumphing over evil, Chabrol’s clinical observation seems to strive to make the proceedings as humdrum as possible, increasing the banality to suit the larger subjects, as he’s given his favorite whipping boys the bourgeoisie a break in favor of the more insidious and hazardous corporate and political criminals.

Chabrol can only laugh at the corruptibility of man, though his humor is very dry. The Comedy of Power isn’t a roasting, but rather a decision to laugh a little rather than cry. Based on France’s most notorious Enron style scandal, the state owned oil company Elf Aquitaine spent 200 million francs of public money on such essentials as mistresses, jewelry, fine art, villas, and apartments for the fat cats and their chums, and of course political favors to keep the gravy train rolling. Chabrol moves down the alphabet one letter, calling the corporation FMG then jokingly starting with a disclaimer that states any resemblance is coincidental.

Chabrol doesn’t bother with plot, it’s all a game - in this case cat and mouse on the intellectual level - and how you play is all that matters. There’s little action and few scenes are played for drama, with calm and underplayed verbal confrontations between dogged magistrate Jeanne Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert) and the arrogant good old boys who think nothing of raping and pillaging as it’s the only way they’ve ever lived, defending themselves through the subtle intimidation of smug questions such as “Do you know who I am?” These scenes are more toward detective parody than dramatizations, but played straight as no one is moved by going about business.

A no-nonsense go-getter, Jeanne is far more competitive than moralistic. Her investigation is very thorough, though we see little of it, but she displays a cool apathy toward the crimes. Simply determined to win, she’s a kind of serial prosecutor who calculatingly exploits her advantages and uses, if not abuses, her power to put her victims behind bars.

Removing all the saintly do-gooding, the characters aren’t clearly delineated cartoonish heroes and villains. Chabrol remains detached from Jeanne, showing her weaknesses as well as the strengths of the crooks to maintain some balance and give us some idea of how they usually get away with it. Jeanne hasn’t made a career out of sticking it to the wealthy, but for whatever reason, perhaps the sheer arrogance of her adversaries, the small towner decides to give the legal system a chance to supersede class privilege for once. Chabrol and semi regular screenwriter Odile Barski suggest it takes a justice drunk on power to risk it all to stop a sect of state sponsored robbers.

Jeanne is an aloof character. She battles misogyny with a lack of empathy for any male beyond her nephew Felix (Thomas Chabrol), and it’s turned her into a poker player who who shows little emotion and barely strays from her judicial mission long enough to get the proper amount of rest and nourishment. Her doctor husband Philippe (Robin Renucci) rightfully feels abandoned, but she’s given up on the idea of having a legitimate marriage long ago, so she simply moves out at first protest.

Huppert is less restrained than usual, starting out seeming somewhat idealistic but growing happier and more challenging as the film progresses despite threats, vandalism, an accident, and what personal life she has generally evaporating. Though in actually challenging the fascist state, Chabrol displays an amount of guts that’s all too rare among today’s co-opted filmmakers, The Comedy of Power is another minor Chabrol. It’s nowhere near as good as his previous film The Bridesmaid, but about the equal of The Flower of Evil. The acting is universally good, but certainly the primary quality of the movie is watching Huppert power tripping. Comedy of Power may be somewhat slight, but it takes a real jester, the kind of guy who would willingly serve in Ice Cube’s court, to fail to make a worthwhile movie with Huppert.


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