Comedy of Power Review
(Warning - this film is based on a real-life story so the review contains some mild non-specific spoilers)
Depending on your point of view, Comedy of Power starts with either a fib or a joke when the clearly reality based plot is prefaced with the usual disclaimer about being a work of fiction. The film is clearly taken from the headlines in French public life where a tenacious investigating judge hunted down corporate wrongdoing in the Elf scandal. In fact, the judge involved has even seen fit to comment on Chabrol's film and denounced it as giving succour to those involved in bribes and conspiracies. Chabrol has on a number of previous occasions sailed close to the wind in his films when adapting from real-life sources, and he has received criticism and censorship because of it. 1973's Les Noces Rouges was held up from distribution because of its resemblance to a political scandal, but this has not put off Chabrol from using stories from the headlines in his films.
Despite its disclaimer, Chabrol's latest is clearly an attempt to capture the public mood and interest, but, contrary as ever, he chooses to make this a tale of laughable villains and unsympathetic heroes. The film stars Isabelle Huppert as the single minded investigating judge nicknamed the "piranha". From an initial lead from an interested friend she hunts down corporate executives who have taken bribes, laundered money, and abused public grants. At first her fat, middle class, and white prey are contemptuous and rely on expensive lawyers to protect them, but the removal of their liberty and the loss of their status soon causes them to break down and justify the normality of their behaviour. As she remorselessly closes in, they even try to kill her and not even the likely breakdown of her marriage will stop her. Political tricks and personal disaster eventually take their toll, and Huppert's judge realises that her pursuit can only bring unhappiness for those around her. This story has been decried as a cynical one, one whose ending justifies doing nothing and simply enjoys the absurdity of it all, however this seems to miss the point somewhat and to ignore Chabrol's constant trick of turning the film back on the viewer.
Much as he did in La Ceremonie, the intention here is to play with the audience's need for identification within the film and to contrast ideas about class and power. In that film Huppert played a woman rejected by the affluent who the viewer almost found themselves applauding for murdering a bourgeois family - Chabrol has ironically referred to the film as his most Marxist - and here a butcher's daughter who has made good through single mindedness and hard work hunts down people who have made their fortunes because of their loose morals and connections. The desire to identify with Huppert as a moral crusader becomes impossible as her lust for retribution is rather excessive and speaks of her own character's class experience, and secondly because her character has let her professional life take over any private one she had. When questioned about a suicide attempt caused by her obscene dedication, she is asked why the person jumped from a window rather than use a gun and in response she realises that the action was one of someone driven to a dangerous gesture rather than someone wanting to die. Consequently, her character is forced to accept the personal again rather than ignore her part in it.
Some have taken this ending as a note of resignation, as a sign that any rebellion against the system is doomed to fail and this would be the case if we were supposed to admire Huppert, but I think that we are not. What her resignation should amount to is how incredibly rooted corruption is in the system that her character, her prey, and the audience all live in.
Through two main devices, Chabrol points out that the corruption Huppert investigates is not so unusual. Firstly the characterisation of Huppert's monomanic obsessive and the complementary characterisation of the stupid, greedy, and downright pathetic men she catches. When they explain why they have, in effect, stolen money through bribes, the corporate criminals point out how ordinary their actions were and justify their actions as following tradition or receiving a fair reward, and just so we get the point that they are not master criminals we see them broken, friendless and ashamed after their downfalls. There is also a bravura opening where the first executive is arrested but not before various members of his staff trouble him on his way out the office with their efforts to manage his personal life in terms of presents, wife and mistress. This is a beautiful balance to the judge who always takes her work home - the accused who can't leave work for his personal life!
The second device is the role played by Thomas Chabrol, Felix, probably his largest yet in his father's films. His character is a throwback to the high living archetypes of Chabrol's early movies, men who live life freely and accept the world's foibles. Felix flirts, he drinks, and he parties, but he does not condemn. It is through the agent of Felix that the dour judge learns to find a real life again and recognises the capacity for corruption in us all. Chabrol jr twinkles through this film and is a delight much as his turn was as the cheery pathologist in the Color of Lies, here though he is crucial to the film's journey.
The deftness the director has with moral vaguery, specifically the lack of real villains in his films and the way this causes the camera to turn back on the audience, is the chief fascination of Chabrol's work for me. When watching the film you may delight in the judge's cleverness, or laugh at her plaintiffs' self justifications, still it is never clear whose side you should be on, or indeed whether there is even a strong moral case to be made against corruption. Chabrol leaves a certain space for the viewer to reflect on how they feel about understanding these criminals so well and liking the righteous judge so little. That, in my view, is the work of a master.
Being objective I must say that despite a lot of good writing, wit, and great performances, this is not a great film. It is a little too long and has lost some of the biographical back-story of the judge which would have given the class angle more of a bite. For people unaware of Chabrol or not particularly on his wavelength, this would leave you a little cold and perhaps in sympathy with the real-life judge in wanting there to be a real hero and real villains. For those people I'd advise seeking out some earlier more accessible films like Cry of the Owl, before returning to the present day. For Chabrol enthusiasts, like myself, this will do nicely.
After the disappointments of La Belle Captive and Violette, this is a much better effort from Koch Lorber as you should expect from such a recent film. The transfer is sharp and well defined with excellent colours capturing Eduardo Serra's cinematography nicely. Contrast levels are very good with no loss of variation in shades of black and white, and the edge enhancement is virtually unnoticeable. It is also anamorphic, in the theatrical aspect ratio, and the print is spotless. In short, the video quality is very good on this dual layer disc. The audio track is French stereo which is appropriate to a film which is not exactly a blockbuster, even if the existing French release has a 5.1 mix. The audio is spotless with no distortion and a pleasing clarity which shows off Mathieu Chabrol's score and keeps the dialogue crisp. The English subtitles are excellent on the feature and are displayed in the large yellow text usual for Koch Lorber, but the same are used for the featurette which has retained burnt in French subtitles as well.
The featurette has footage from a press conference at the Berlin Film festival with Huppert and Chabrol responding to questions and a rather contradictory moment where the real life mistress of one of the corporate thiefs thanks Chabrol for keeping her name out of the film whilst she is filmed for the documentary and her name is resplendently displayed on screen! There are interviews with Odile Barski, Chabrol's co-writer, and Patrice Godeau which give more background to the story and the difficulties in bringing it to the screen. This is followed by some on-set footage and a narrated account of the real life judge's response to the film - "(it) undermined the struggle against financial crime". There is also a trailer for the film and several others for Koch Lorber releases. The menu design is a series of poster art and stills with no animation.
A cause for joy for Chabrol fans but a film that doesn't travel too well outside of that group. Koch Lorber have delivered a disc which ports the salient material from the French release but has a properly transferred and rather good treatment of the feature. The fact the presentation is region free will make it a decent purchase for Chabrol lovers who want an English friendly disc.