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Comedy of Power

Comedy of Power(2006)

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The literal translation of Claude Chabrol's 55th motion picture in nearly 50 years, L'Ivresse de Pouvoir, is "the intoxication of power" ... but for its brief American theatrical run earlier this year the film was called Comedy of Power. The script by Chabrol and longtime collaborator Odile Barski takes as its jumping off point France's Elf-Aquitaine scandal of a decade ago. The biggest criminal trial in the history of postwar France, "l'affaire Elf" arose from the indictment of three dozen individuals associated with the state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine (and connected to the government's ruling elite) in the misappropriation of almost two hundred million dollars in company funds. Isabelle Huppert (in her seventh collaboration with Chabrol) stars as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a government-appointed magistrate assigned to crack the case and nicknamed "the Piranha" for her singular tenaciousness. Although Jeanne is based on the real life judge Eva Joly, Chabrol is far less interested in reliving headlines as he is in revealing the preoccupations and peccadilloes of the bourgeoisie.

Claude Chabrol is a rare storyteller able to reconcile an acidic cynicism with an impish joie de vivre. His films can rail at institutional hypocrisy (1988's Un affaire de femmes, starring Isabelle Huppert) or seem lighthearted to the point of inconsequentiality (1987's Masques) but they are consistently charming, expertly filmed and elegantly acted – and Comedy of Power is no exception. At the outset, the film seems to hew close to a familiar paradigm: the lone female investigator, the guilty male parties protecting one another and conspiring to undermine her, and the glass ceiling against which she ultimately bumps on her doomed quest for justice. Where Comedy of Power distances itself from the Hollywood formula is in the subtlety of its playing, in the maturity and sophistication it expects from its viewing audience, in its eschewing of caricature and its refusal to patly bring down the curtain on either an inspiring positive conclusion or a soul-crushing negative outcome. While American viewers may feel frustrated by its unabashed and oh-so-French anti-climax, Comedy of Power isn't about its ending but about the particulars of the case (and the lives of those involved) as it approaches its inevitable endgame.

Eva Joly, putative model for "le grand menace" Jeanne Charmant-Killman, was a French citizen of Norwegian blood – an immigrant who made good and married well - and surely Joly's/Charmant Killman's devotion to the innately French principles of "liberty, equality, fraternity" fired her desire to bring the conspirators of l'affaire Elf towards an ultimate accounting. (It's worth noting that the national motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is a legacy of the French Revolution.) In scenes filmed for b>Comedy of Power but dropped from the final cut, Chabrol has Jeanne visit her washwoman mother, a commoner whose slave labor provided the down payment for Jeanne's ascendancy toward middle class status (a standing solidified by Jeanne's eventual marriage into a bourgeois family that had hired her as an au pair). As a founder of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol was both a Communist and a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma ; rejecting the auteur theory embraced by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Chabrol was branded déclassé during the 1960s but his craftsman approach bespeaks an essential egalitarianism that is reflected in the majority of his protagonists. Although Jeanne Charmant-Killman (the hyphenate name hints at a dual nature) has risen to a position of prominence, fame and affluence, her fetishistic documentation of the cash amounts paid by the conspirators from company funds for their mistresses' comforts, for personal landscaping and for Caribbean vacations betrays the hard-wired frugality of her peasant stock.

Now in her fifties, Isabelle Huppert has lost none of the sex appeal or the love of risk of her seminal (and career-making) film appearances in such French classics as Les valseuses (Going Places, 1974), La dentellière (The Lacemaker, 1977) and Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, 1981). By turns impenetrable, formidable, coquettish, seductive, indomitable and vulnerable, Huppert's performance is a master class in film acting. Backing her play is an exceptional supporting cast, including Thomas Chabrol (son of the director and actress Stéphane Audran) as Jeanne's slacker nephew (with whom she shares a dangerous rapport), Robin Renucci as her dissatisfied husband and Patrick Bruel, François Berléand (the dogged cop of The Transporter films), Jean-François Balmer, Jean-Philippe Duclos (Queen Margot) and Jacques Boudet as the cabal of conspirators whose code Jeanne must crack before she can bring the guilty to justice. Crisply shot by Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Blood Diamond) and sensuously scored by Matthieu Chabrol (son of the director and his first wife, Agnes Goute), Comedy of Power is sly and sexy entertainment from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

For a filmmaker more than a little interested in the physical textures of human life, Claude Chabrol has endured some exceptionally shoddy DVD transfers. Happily (and perhaps due to the film's freshness), this all-region DVD from Koch Lorber Films is an exception to this rule. Letterboxed at an anamorphic 1.85:1, the image is clear and richly colorful. Although a recent French DVD offered the film's soundtrack in a 5.1 remix, only Dolby 2.0 mono is present here; the monaural soundscape is acceptable and yellow English subtitles are optional. A making-of featurette is most welcome (it's always fun seeing Chabrol behind the scenes) but comes off at first as a bit of a Babel-like muddle, with many talking heads popping up in quick succession, their French subtitled and spoken (by a Scottish translator!) – sometimes even at the same time. Unidentified except by name, Christine Deviers-Joncourt, former mistress to implicated French foreign minister Roland Dumas, appears briefly to thank Chabrol for not using her name in the film. The only other extra is a 1m 45s theatrical trailer.

For more information about The Comedy of Power, visit Koch Lorber Films. To order The Comedy of Power, go to TCM Shopping.



by Richard Harland Smith