THE COMEDY OF POWERNR
In 2002, 40 French government officials, including a former interior minister and corporate executives at Elf-Aquitaine, a state-owned oil company, were called to answer charges in one of the largest corruption cases in French history. The administrations of then Prime Minister François Mitterrand, and the present PM Jacques Chirac, were weakened by the scandal, and because Elf had purchased a state-owned utility in Germany, German PM Helmut Kohl and his party were suspected of taking bribes. The judge who presided over the eight-year investigation into the misuse of government funds was a naturalized French citizen named Eva Joly. She has since returned to her native Norway, but Joly remains a popular figure in France. In Claude Chabrol's roman à clef film, The Comedy of Power, her name is Jeanne Charmant Killman (Isabelle Huppert). Killman's favorite accessory is a pair of blood-red leather gloves.
At the pinnacle of her power, Killman comes to resemble the criminals she so assiduously (and hilariously) interrogates. Acting on that feeling of infallibility which power bestows, she celebrates the indictment of a key government figure with a victory party. Chabrol, the humanist, doesn't side with Killman, nor does he excuse the embezzlers. His point is not that we live in a morally ambiguous universe, only that we continually grapple with human frailty. Killman is like a mouse in a closed labyrinth, and her manipulators are the practiced members of France's power elite, the people whose positions she threatens with her investigation. They thrive on a system of favors, the règle du jeu of the privileged to which, ironically, Killman secretly aspires, and which later remains utterly unchanged by the indictments.
Killman, like her real counterpart, is a foreigner who first came to France as an au pair. During her investigation into the accounts of one prominent businessman, she surfs the Internet in order to identify the brand of couture clothing he buys for his mistress. She also carefully calculates the cost of fruit trees on his estate, and then delights in his underestimation of her. Killman is no insider to the halls of power; she's an upstart, a parvenu and a woman. In every frame of The Comedy of Power, Chabrol mines the subtle differences of class, gender and ethnicity that define the relationship between accuser and accused, and achieves that wonderful, fly-on-the-wall bemusement which is the hallmark of his films. If Chabrol seems uninterested in the scandal itself, in the greed, the slush funds and influence peddling, it is because his inspiration lies only with the colorful, nefarious characters who surface during these Machiavellian exercises, and in this case with the woman who flushes them out.
At home, Killman is unsympathetic to her husband's complaints over the demands of her career, preferring instead the carefree company of her lazy but charismatic nephew Felix (Thomas Chabrol). Only the incomparable Huppert can carry off a character so brutal, so unconscionable, and yet so undeniably human: Chabrol does not fault Killman for her treatment of her husband, and neither can we. He's tiresome, unremittingly so, and despite our feeling that Killman may be a tad too flirty with Felix, we are drawn to her because she is the one person who, at least for the moment, enjoys power and position. Killman is engaged in a blood sport, and she acts accordingly, with relish and enthusiasm--and she chooses the right accoutrements. Huppert thought the film should be called The Red Gloves.
When Killman lifts her shoulders in a devil-may-care gesture at the end of the film, we're relieved of scandals, of embezzlers, and of oligarchies--and if occasionally we are seduced by money or power, as Killman is, it is with the sure knowledge that nothing endures. In Huppert's wispy body, Chabrol finds the perfect metaphor for that tenuity, but also the irony at the core of The Comedy of Power and of so much of his oeuvre: If there is a purpose to our existence, it is not burdensome or weighty or even long-lasting. That's why farce is the purest expression of the human condition for Chabrol: It doesn't guess at motive. It does not pretend to map the soul. Farce simply produces a fleeting reflection. Although Chabrol is celebrated as a master of suspense, his great movies, like this one and the underappreciated masterpiece Madame Bovary (also starring Huppert), meticulously expose the mechanisms of our entrapment.