Claude Chabrol’s “Comedy of Power” is not quite funny.
Claude Chabrol, that most indefatigable of Nouvelle Vague directors, is arguably the one most preoccupied with the lived realities of women. From “Les Bonnes Femmes” (1960) through “Story of Women” (1988), “La Cérémonie” (1995), and even a screen adaptation of “Madame Bovary” (1991), among other films, Chabrol has repeatedly focused on complex heroines, of inevitably elastic moral dimensions, negotiating their own way in a male-dominated world. Those last three titles were also, of course, collaborations with the estimable Isabelle Huppert, who has often served as a brilliant muse for the director, if a little inconsistently. Their latest partnership falls somewhere between the triumphs of “La Cérémonie” or “Story of Women” and Chabrol’s ill aimed stab at Flaubert, with Huppert here playing a judge plunging headlong into a heady, and increasingly dangerous investigation of corruption between France’s oil industry, leading government officials, and certain oil-rich African states.
The precise details of the case never become very clear and are clearly not the point for Chabrol and co-writer Odile Barski, who base their work on the true story of the female magistrate, Eva Joly, who took on a cabal of very highly placed men in France’s infamous Elf scandal of the 1990s. “Comedy of Power” (L’Ivresse du pouvoir) largely sides with its heroine’s fearless scorn for the corrupt, often boorish bores who are so “drunk” (to cite the film’s original French title) on their own lofty, habitual, and tacit privileges that they are slow in comprehending the predicament she’s put them in. The power of the title points equally, meanwhile, to the infectious, personally risky table-turning undertaken by Huppert’s blithe spirit in going where certainly no man dared go before. The “comedy” that it makes of her crusade, on the other hand, is less than apt, let alone laugh-out-loud. The film strikes a rather unstable balance of suspense, psychological drama, and mocking satire — an almost glib formula that in its harmless nose-thumbing at the upper echelons feels (and looks) more like a television series.
The real-life French magistrate, Joly, was from Norway originally, which made her even more an “outsider” under the circumstances than her sex or the relatively modest rank conferred by her judge’s robes. Huppert and Chabrol have forgone the Norwegian dimension, though Huppert’s good-natured attack on her social superiors is so lacking in respect for the admittedly personally unimpressive but dangerously powerful men that it is as if she were from another country anyway, if not another planet. Indeed, given that even the eventual departure of her weary, somewhat morose husband (Robin Renucci) produces barely a ripple on her insouciant surface, one might get the idea she’s from Venus and they’re all from Mars.
“Comedy of Power” opens Fri/20 at the Roxie.
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