The Comedy of Power (L’ivresse du Pouvoir, 2006)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The film world is awash today in notices about and tributes to Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave director who died yesterday at the age of 80. Noted for his leading-edge championing of Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol himself relished in making many a good thriller. But he was also interested in power and corruption in society, in families, and in the human heart.

I can’t pretend to be extremely well versed in Chabrol’s career, nor have I seen nearly as many of his movies as I would have liked. But the films I have seen (This Man Must Die and La Cérémonie are reviewed on this site) have led me to an instant kinship with this critic of the smug, excavator of hypocrisies and depravity, and bemused observer of the strivings of men (mainly) whose ambitions are not only unworthy but surprisingly simple-minded and, ultimately, modest.

The Comedy of Power, his 2006 takeoff on a real-life scandal, is a rewarding exercise in watching him perform a perfect balancing act between a drama of corruption and a comedy verging on slapstick. That he has some female enforcers hand some very self-impressed men their dicks on a platter is even more deliciously humorous.

The first comedic moment comes right at the start, with an explanatory title in bold lettering that contains the boilerplate disclaimer that usually appears at the end of all feature films—that the movie is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and real persons is strictly coincidental. In fact, any French viewer would recognize this story as “L’affaire Elf,” a worldwide, multiyear scheme in which politicians and business leaders enriched themselves through kickbacks paid by corrupt African governments and businesses. But you don’t have to be French to get the inference. Political and financial scandals know no borders, and this movie’s theme strikes an all-too-familiar note.

Chabrol sets up the adversarial sides with economical visual gags. We meet the first corrupt businessman, CEO Michel Humeau (Francois Berlèand), as he prepares in his office for a weekend trip. He speaks on two cellphones at once as a flurry of assistants buzz around him. When the phone that has his wife on the other end cuts off, he shakes it and then uses it to—what—shave? No, he has a skin condition, and he’s always scratching at his face; perhaps his wife literally makes his skin crawl. Outside of his office building, he is accosted by a complement of gendarmes and arrested. Amid protests of “Do you know who I am?!” Humeau is forced to strip at the prison—a literal dressing-down.

We get an inkling of what’s ahead when two of his associates, hearing of his misfortune, say that a magistrate named Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert) is the investigator. She is known as “The Piranha.” Cut to a shot of some enormous goldfish sitting at the bottom of a small fish tank—a hilarious and perfect metaphor that is rounded out when the camera pans down and we observe The Piranha in action, eating sushi with a man who is involved in the scheme but who thinks he has her where he wants her.

Of course, no man in this film is any match for Charmant-Killman. Huppert gives her a spine of steel wrapped in a painfully thin form of pure energy fueled by nicotine. She has a short, sarcastic laugh ready for any of the dubious, ridiculous statements made by the buffoonish conspirators she interviews one by one. Descarts (Jacques Boudet), a rubberfaced politician who is fond, as all the conspirators are, of enormous cigars, decides to contain Charmant-Killman by coopting her and setting her in competition with another woman. He has her promoted, moved to a spacious office, and gives her a very sharp assistant, Erika (Marilyne Canto). But, instead of ending The Piranha’s crusade, this move only doubles the conspirators’ trouble. The only person the plotters manage to corrupt is a man, and they show the famous honor among thieves by shamelessly ratting each other out.

This film would have been a farce in other hands, and probably a good one. Chabrol, particularly by casting Huppert, adds the necessary gravity to the story. This really is how the world works. Greedy, stupid, condescending men are lining their pockets with taxpayer money in countries all over the world for luxuries they could well afford with their executive salaries, or a mistress, or some other bit of ephemera to balm their overtended egos. Dedicated prosecutors like Charmant-Killman keep putting their thumbs in the dike, but the pressure is too great to hold out for long. In one particularly tragic case, anti-Mafia fighters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were Excellent Cadavers, and in the film, Charmant-Killman eventually comes under 24-hour police protection.

The only misstep is the depiction of Jeanne’s rich husband Philippe (Robin Renucci), who becomes ever more lonely and depressed as his wife develops tunnel vision for her quarry. He makes a desperate choice near the end of the film that seems to reach her, and hints are that she may have a change of heart toward her work. This character transformation, if genuine, is unnecessary. Chabrol should have trusted Huppert more. Her performance is so vibrant that it is impossible to see Jeanne Charmant-Killman as one of the caricatures that surround her.

Indeed, Chabrol has shown an affinity for detective stories and their keen-eyed sleuths to such an extent that this collaboration led me to envision Huppert as Charmant-Killman in a series of films to offer a realistic antidote to the fussy concoctions of Agatha Christie. Although Chabrol can no longer offer his amazing touch to the proceedings, I sincerely hope to see The Piranha hunt another day. l

David Hudson at MUBI has a comprehensive round-up of articles, observations, and more here.

Roger Ebert has a Chabrol tribute and links here.

Longtime Chabrol enthusiast Ray Young (Flickhead) has a tribute and links here.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    13th/09/2010 to 6:02 pm

    Excellent choice for a Farewell to Chabrol – I liked this one immensly, and Huppert and Canto are excellent. It’s ending, not a happy one really, is in tune with the story, rather than Hollywood, which is what we’d prolly see made here. He ratchets up the intensity well, too. I honestly think hs output was always watchable, even the “commercial” films. I saw this one practically back to back with “La Fleur du Mal”, and they both had such a nice groove for human evil, and very strong female characters.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/09/2010 to 6:11 pm

    Thanks, Vanwall. I really love this film, and I do consider it quite commercial for a foreign film. It has all the cop procedural, business corruption stuff you can find in dozens of American releases, but it’s witty, realistic, and has the added advantage of being anchored by the great Isabelle Huppert. I really could envision an entire Piranha series, if only someone would have the imagination to realize that a strong woman like this is exactly what women (and many men) all over the world are craving.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    16th/09/2010 to 10:11 am

    Gee, that screen cap looks very familiar. I kid, Marilyn. It’s called “fair use”.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/09/2010 to 10:50 am

    Ha, Peter! I honestly don’t know where I got it. It was on a Google image search.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/09/2010 to 8:21 am

    You caught me here Marilyn! While I have prided myself in my Chabrol exposure over the years, I never managed to negotiate this one, though your review and some new-found Chabrol interest has me nearing a view.

    This here is definitely Chabrol through and through:

    “This film would have been a farce in other hands, and probably a good one. Chabrol, particularly by casting Huppert, adds the necessary gravity to the story. This really is how the world works. Greedy, stupid, condescending men are lining their pockets with taxpayer money in countries all over the world for luxuries they could well afford with their executive salaries, or a mistress, or some other bit of ephemera to balm their overtended egos.”

    My absolute favorite Chabrols are LE CEREMONIE, LES BONNES FEMMES, LA FEMME INFIDELE and LE BOUCHER, but the prolific New Wave master has about a dozen others that are essential viewing (including this one).

    Lovely homage here!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/09/2010 to 8:48 am

    I agree, Sam. He’s the Nouvelle Vague filmmaker I’m closest to and always enjoy his wicked sense of humor and outrage.

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