The Comedy of Power
2006Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Fran?ois Berléand, Patrick Bruel, Isabelle Huppert
eading a name like The Comedy of Power, I confess that I walked into Claude Chabrol’s latest film with skewed expectations. Then again, we’re talking about Chabrol here. I should have known better than to think he’d make any attempt to mash his plot into a conventional comedy. If you recall, his greatest film, Le Boucher, embodied the structure of a thriller, but took its material in a strange and unexpected direction. The same rings true (though, slightly distilled) with The Comedy of Power, which represents a comedy in spirit, but plays more like an absurdist drama, or a conspiracy film oddly detached from deceit and corruption.
The film is supposedly inspired by the real life events of Eva Joly, a female judge whose persistence led her to bring charges against a corrupt French oil company in the mid 90s. Here the judge, renamed Jeanne Charmant-Killman and played by Isabelle Huppert, settles into a role not far removed from a film noir gumshoe. She grills her suspects with questions, exerting the kind of dominance you suspect her adversaries didn’t anticipate from a woman. And for what may be the first time in a film concerning political and corporate scandal, the opposition, for the most part, folds almost willingly.
Curiously, the film never takes this conspiracy in the direction we’ve grown accustomed to in recent films, instead toying with the power structure between Jeanne and the array of corrupt executives paraded before her in shackles. It is here that the real comedy of the film emerges, though in ways sometimes too subtle to detect as it boils down to facial gestures and cleverly disguised language.
The legal infraction itself begins with a single man who embezzles company profits to provide his mistress with the finest of luxuries, and, from there, works its way up the corporate ladder as Charmant-Killman (whose name, in hindsight, is a bit too obvious) slowly exposes their crimes with little regard for whose toes she may step upon. The film focuses primarily on the balance of power between Jeanne and her adversaries, leaving the narrative ripe with potential for caricatures of various male stereotypes. Chabrol appears eager to poke fun at what he assumes to be the persona of those greedy enough to perpetrate such schemes. The best characterizations come with the depiction of the men pulling the strings behind the curtains of this scandal. Lamenting about “what’s to be done with this female judge,” they sit around at fancy restaurants, at poolside gatherings, and in limousines, puffing away at cigars while insidious music plays in the background. It’s just the right tone of exaggeration to make this aspect work within a comic framework.
I suppose I enjoyed the film for its unconventional approach and the audacity of not pursuing an overtly comic angle, but somehow it never went as far as I wanted it to. Isabelle Huppert’s astounding performance provides the backbone of the film, but without her, its delicate balance would disintegrate. While she should be the central focus of the film, it needs more strength outside of her role to provide the glue that holds the entire project together. One could argue that the adept direction of Chabrol lends this element to the narrative and, sure, he’s as skillful as ever here, but his brilliance alone is not enough to propel the work to a higher level of success. The material just lacks the impact it needs to make this a superior film instead of just an average one.
While it’s not a very popular opinion, I still feel that within the work of all the former New Wave directors pervades an unintentional weariness, as if they’re long past their prime and simply create films out of habit rather than passion. I don’t exactly know the reasons why I feel this way. Maybe these directors never adjusted to the world of modern cinema, but that doesn’t seem right; they practically invented modern cinema. More likely, I recall all too well their most classic films and can’t help but gauge their latest endeavors by those same standards. In a way, I’m sure they feel the same. Let’s face it, they have already constructed some of the greatest films ever made; it would be quite a feat to top them. Honestly, after Chabrol has directed a film as brilliant as Le Boucher, he can be forgiven for making a less impressive film like The Comedy of Power.
The Comedy of Power is currently in limited release.