The Comedy of Power

Comedy of Power, the 2005 film by French auteur Claude Chabrol, is an exercise in that old saying: it is almost impossible to throw dirt on someone without getting a little on yourself. The film is a surprisingly engaging crime drama based on actual events, and the story features all the necessary elements of a good scandal: egotistical executives, squandering of public money, adultery, and an ambitious lawyer. Quite, apropos in the wake of the Wolfowitz World Bank scandal. Of course this is a French film, so the suspense is less edge-of-your-seat, and more existential dilemma.

Isabelle Huppert in her seventh collaboration with director Chabrol. Huppert is still as fresh and stunning as she was in their first film together, 1978’s Violette (which won her best actress at Cannes that year). Comedy of Power is based on the real-life financial and political scandal, the Elf Affair, which was the worst corruption scandal in French history. Elf Aquitaine was a state-owned French oil company, and Eva Joly is the real-life French magistrate who exposed the company’s fraud, and more importantly, shined the spotlight on how very, very blurry the lines between the state and business have become in France. The French have gotten into a sticky situation where public money becomes private-business money, as well.

In Comedy of Power, Ms. Joly is re-named as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, whose name around the courthouse is “the piranha”. Ms. Charmant-Killman is the top magistrate because she fought her way up from the bottom, and has made it her life’s mission to battle financial corruption. She is tough, she is passionate about her job, and she firmly believes that she is working for the good of the nation. Huppert plays the role brilliantly with enough cool detachment to give Charmant-Killman depth and sympathy. The story follows Charmant-Killman as she goes after three corrupt executives in particular, while fending off pressure from her bosses and possibly being in cahoots with a certain member of the enemy.

The surrounding cast of characters include Ms. Charmant-Killman’s husband of many years, Philippe (Robin Renucci), their visiting nephew Felix (Thomas Chabrol, the director’s son), a Gen-X slacker type, and a slew of grey-haired, self-serving male executives each one more slimy than the next. The only other prominent female character is Erika (Marilyne Canto), an assistant given to Ms. Charmant-Killman in an attempt to undo her because, as the old men put it, “women love to do dirty tricks to other women.”

Comedy of Power continues Chabrol’s longstanding fascination with public façade versus private lives. Chabrol is often labeled the French Hitchcock for his fascination with intrigue, the criminal mind, moral compromise, and guilt. In this instance, he is fascinated with a detective who uncovers a web of corruption that she eventually becomes caught in. Charmant-Killman tries to beat the suits at their own game but discovers that the game is never-ending; it’s only the players who change.

Chabrol is often lumped with the French New Wave, alongside Truffaut and Godard, however his inclusion in this group is practically accidental, and a mistake of proximity. Chabrol began making films in the late ’50s and on through the ’60s, and was therefore included in the New Wave, however he has always been more willfully mainstream than any of the other New Wave directors ever cared to be. Rather than the experimentation and innovation of an auteur, Chabrol was always more fascinated with the craft of filmmaking. And Chabrol has been much more prolific than either Truffaut or Godard cared to be as well, making films steadily for the past 40 years, with 1978’s Violette considered as his masterpiece.

Comedy of Power is a testament to the fact that Chabrol is obviously a technically perfect director. Visually the film is smooth like stone — all bluish-grey and sleek. He achieves an effortless symmetry between the mis-en-scène and the plot that only an experienced director can pull off. Grey buildings, block-like spaces, square cluttered offices and square uncluttered apartments all add to the feeling of bureaucratic oppression that permeates the film.

However, this sleek and detached style is such that while, on the one hand, Comedy of Power is making relevant commentaries on our world – on duplicity, ambition, and ego — the film is so tranquil that while watching you’re lulled, and you do not feel anger, or any strong emotion. The thing about Chabrol is that he’s too sympathetic to everyone, and he likes his camera to be nonjudgmental, an objective storyteller. Something about this feels like a cop-out, though. The world loves to go on about how Americans are too loud and opinionated, but there is something to be said for a strong opinion as a starting point for further dialogue.

Despite this, Comedy of Power does enjoy showing how comical and foolish the grab for power makes us. There are some good insights on gender and power, as well. As the scandal draws more attention and publicity, Charmant-Killman’s stature increases. As her celebrity grows, a rift spreads through Charmant-Killman’s marriage, and at one point her husband’s nickname at work becomes “Mr. Jeanne”. She thinks it’s stupid, their nephew thinks it’s funny. However, immediately following her husband’s declaration, Jeanne is shown in the kitchen in an apron and rubber gloves doing the dishes.

In fact, out of all the characters, the only one who seems to have the right attitude is nephew Felix, who suffers from a severe lack of ambition. He is apathetic and disillusioned. “Nothing is serious, everything is tragic, but I can still love life,” he says. He provides an infusion of Gen X cynicism into the baby boomer world of power, success, and ambition.

It must be said again that Huppert is simply mesmerizing in the role, with a subtle yet sharp sexuality. There is something very compelling about such a strong character housed in her tiny and pale body.

The costume design by Sandrine Bernard and Mic Cheminal is excellent. Huppert is outfitted in only grays and blacks with the sole exception of red gloves, a red-handbag, and at some points, red-framed glasses. The red gloves are really fun, though. You could debate the symbolism of those red gloves for hours. And that always make a film worth watching.

The extras include the original theatrical trailer and a “Making Of” featurette, which includes on-set footage as well as question-and-answer footage from the Berlin Film Festival where Huppert especially gives interesting insights on her character, but the sound in this section is pretty shoddy.

RATING 6 / 10