Comedy of Power
There are people married to their jobs and then there’s Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the protagonist of Claude Chabrol’s slicing Comedy of Power. Midway through the film, there’s a sequence in which she decides, with the offhandedness of a butcher throwing away a rotten piece of meat, to leave her husband. She matter-of-factly packs her bags, grabs a taxi, and declares that she’d like to go to her office. “It’s 4 a.m.,” the driver scoffs. Jeanne shrugs. Where else would she go?
Fact is is that she isn’t herself when she isn’t working. A prosecutor with disapproving eyes and a perpetually curled lip, we can practically feel the euphoria pumping through her veins as she takes down corporate bigwigs ruined by their inability to keep their egos in check. She’s alive – and the smartest person in the room – whenever wearing her occupational facade. Strip her of her professional big-headedness in her personal life, though, and she’s without a sense of self. She isn’t sure how to love or be loved. She likes being feared more than she likes the warmth served on the side of a healthy relationship.
And the film, resolutely cold, is more or less a study of the effect power can have on a person’s identity, and how their intoxication with authority is capable of destroying as many lives as a serial murderer. The person being focused on, of course, is Jeanne, with the action centered around her exploits – and curbings of terminal threat – as a lawyer who rises in the ranks as the film progresses.
Whether we like her is muddled – part of us is intrigued, and thoroughly respectful of, her methods of taking down corrupt big kahunas and her apparent comfortability with doing so. But another part is turned off by the way she seems to sniff out alleged wrongdoing like a bloodhound just looking for something to snack on. Despite proclaiming that she really and truly wants to live in world colored by integrity at one point (“It’s not the image of justice I care about. It’s justice,” she snaps to a naysayer), we can’t be fooled: Jeanne is a woman who likes the emotional perks that come with controlling someone’s fate. Simple as that.
But Comedy of Power is as alienating as its heroine. Whereas Chabrol’s naturalism valuing style has mostly worked to his benefit over the course of his career (his 1995 masterpiece, La Cérémonie, for instance, was a humdinger of bringing cinematic weight to heinous suburban tragedy), it isn’t quite as compelling in the film. Nothing really happens except for the destruction of the psyches of Jeanne’s “victims,” which, while initially ringing with fascinating ruthlessness, eventually grows monotonous since the movie never takes on the conventional beginning, middle, and end structuring of a typical crime drama.
Still, Huppert is sensationally cutthroat, and Chabrol, 76 during production, spins Jeanne’s cruel web with a persuasion that reminds us that people of her power abusing renown do, in fact, exist. I just wish it did more than prick our senses – we should feel a sting, followed by the feeling of cinematic venom seeping into our bloodstream. But Comedy of Power is too detached for that. C+