COMEDY OF POWER (Ivresse du pouvoir, L’)(director/writer: Claude Chabrol; screenwriter: Odile Barski; cinematographer: Eduardo Serra; editor: Monique Fardoulis; music: Matthieu Chabrol; cast: Isabelle Huppert (Jeanne Charmant-Killman), François Berléand (Michel Humeau), Patrick Bruel (Jacques Sibaud), Marilyne Canto (Erika), Robin Renucci (Philippe Charmant-Killman), Thomas Chabrol (Felix), Jean-François Balmer (Boldi), Pierre Vernier (Président Martino), Philippe Duclos (Jean-Baptiste Holéo), Roger Dumas (René Lange), Jacques Boudet (Descarts), Yves Verhoeven (Benoît, the clerk); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Patrick Godeau; Koch Lorber; 2006-France/Germany-in French with English subtitles)
“Despite the title, there’s no laugh-out-loud comedy in this mostly serious thriller.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Claude Chabrol’s (“Nada”/”Betty”/”The Butcher”) 55th motion picture in 50 years is the stylish and well-crafted L’Ivresse de Pouvoir, which is translated to mean “the intoxication of power” … but for the American theatrical run and the DVD it was called “Comedy of Power.” Despite the title, there’s no laugh-out-loud comedy in this mostly serious thriller–though it’s laced throughout with a droll humor. The sharp-edged political drama reminded me somewhat of Costa-Gavras’ “Z” in the intensity shown by the magistrate to get justice in a corrupt government. It stars the always delightful fiftysomething Isabelle Huppert as a French judge, who singlehandedly tries to bring down the corrupt CEO of a large state owned oil corporation with ties to corrupt politicians (the Huppert character was based on the real life judge Eva Joly, a French citizen of Norwegian blood – an immigrant of peasant stock who made good and married into the upper-class). To do this Enron-sized investigation the female judge must crackdown against the male power structure standing behind him, consisting of both powerful sleazy smug politicians and corporation heads who have abused the public’s trust and used their influential positions to line their own pockets with illicit money. It’s loosely based on real events, the Elf Aquitaine scandal, that took place in France in the 1990s, which resulted in the biggest criminal trial in the history of postwar France. The script is deftly cowritten with Chabrol and his longtime collaborator Odile Barski.
Because of her long history of persistence to track down the white collar criminals, Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert, her seventh time working with Chabrol) is tagged with the nickname “the piranha.” The workaholic is currently working long hours on getting an indictment against Michel Humeau (Francois Berleand), a corrupt chairman of a large government agency whose job was to be making sure of France’s economic independence. Jeanne with the help of Humeau’s slimy, wolfish and crafty replacement, Jacques Sibaud (Patrick Bruel), has gathered incriminating evidence of Humeau abusing the public trust by embezzling and bankrolling corrupt foreign heads of state and of hiring his mistress, whom he bought with public funds a few luxury houses, a custom-built swimming pool and also provided her with an expensive wardrobe. Humeau is constantly scratching his face because of a skin condition, and gets even more depressed when imprisoned and treated like a common criminal–which is done to set an example for others. When Jeanne goes after bigger fish and her life is threatened so that she needs bodyguards even at home, Philippe (Robin Renucci), her long-suffering depressive doctor husband, who comes from a wealthy and powerful family, feels abandoned and insulted that people refer to him as the lesser spouse and wants to live anonymous like a normal couple and not be in a fish bowl. So the couple separate, as her media headline anti-corruption crusade interferes with their private life and she’s forced to choose her professional dedication over marriage.
Meanwhile the plot cooked up by the crooked politicians in bed with the crooked businessmen to intimidate Jeanne by force fails. Even the one to halt her investigation by teaming her with a younger ambitious assistant, a female judge named Erika (Maryline Canto). The thinking of the sexist boys is that the girls will become rivals and not cooperate with each other, and get into a catfight. But they’re wrong, as the ladies bond and Jeanne becomes even more determined to get justice against institutionalized government corruption. Seemingly a sense of power stirs her on as she realizes that she has the means to bring down these venal giants of the male power structure, and that alone gets her off (as she seriously gets a charge that her office is considered to be possibly the most powerful one in France).
Besides Huppert’s brilliant subtle lead performance, there are other fine performances from the supporting actors. Thomas Chabrol (the middle-aged son of the director and actress Stéphane Audran) as Jeanne’s slacker nephew and her opposite when it comes to work habits, forms a close platonic relationship with his aunt and becomes her trusted confidante; while the slimy conspirators who Jeanne must underhandedly outsmart before she can bring the guilty to justice include the following: the kickback businessman played by Jean-François Balmer, the sneaky corrupt businessman played by Jean-Philippe Duclos, the politically savvy Jacques Boudet and the spineless corrupt head judge played by Pierre Vernier. It’s sumptuously shot by Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra and entrancingly scored by Matthieu Chabrol (son of the director and his first wife, Agnes Goute).
It’s a minor Chabrol, a character study film telling of the allure of power. Even though it doesn’t have anything big or new to say about the corruption of power, except the usual things about greed and bad character, nevertheless it is very entertaining and Huppert is just terrific to watch in a subtle performance as she gets her dander up and goes after the bad boys–doing it more for bloodsport to see these villains get their comeuppance than for patriotism or civic duty. As is his want, Chabrol is less interested in retracing the headlines or details of the crimes than in having a field day with the transgressions of the bourgeoisie. Thereby most of the film follows the foibles in the lives of the businessmen and the judge’s uneasy relationship at home. By taking this resigned cynical approach that nobody can stamp out corruption anyway, Chabrol might not achieve great results in his payoff–the guilty culprits in their victimless crime receive light sentences–but with his ability to tell a good story, he has come up with a film I found to be immensely enjoyable as a surprisingly palatable deadpan comedy on the human condition.
REVIEWED ON 3/21/2009 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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