Few things are as satisfying to hear as "Do you know who I am?" when the person saying it is a self-assured business kingpin and the person he's saying it to is a prosecutor who is about to publicly nail the kingpin's hide to the courthouse door. All those swaggering peer-to-peer dealings -- private exchanges of huge amounts of money, stock manipulation, cheating employees of their retirement funds, obscene executive salaries, back dating options, boardroom favors, living the good life on the shareholders' nickel (think of a $6,000 shower curtain) -- suddenly have consequences that the company's high-priced legal teams can't rationalize away.
In the case of Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power (Ivresse du Pouvoir, L'), massive corruption reaches to the top of a quasi-Government corporation. "These funds are at the disposal of political leaders. It's only normal and it happens everywhere," says one worldly, cigar smoking official. The person who plans to pull down this corrupt heap by going after the leaders is Investigating Magistrate Jeanne Charmant-Killman. Her nickname is "the piranha." Isabelle Huppert plays her with charming, relentless amusement.
The film gradually moves from the immensely satisfying techniques of senior executive humiliation to our slow involvement with Charmant-Killman as a person. All the confidant, comfortable, aging men in their well-cut suits (many with the red thread of the Legion of Honor sewn in their lapels) attempt to bluster, or flatter, or condescend their way out of her office. She delights, and so do we, in reducing them to self-pitying prison inmates.
Jeanne Charmant-Killman is a woman with issues, but we're all for her even when her relentless drive begins to affect her marriage. Her husband, a doctor from a good French family, for some reason doesn't appreciate being referred to as Mr. Jeanne Charmant-Killman. Those issues may have to do with men in power, but there are larger issues, too. "It's not the image of justice I care about," she says at one point to her more flexible superior, "it's justice." It's not too long before the brakes fail on her car, her office is vandalized, she has bodyguards and we all learn that the corruption goes higher than simply a company's executive suite. How do things end? Let's just say that sincere outrage is usually boring in a film. With Comedy of Power we have witty disillusionment to be satisfied with, and with the hope that this world has more Jeanne Charmant-Killmans.
Claude Chabrol as the director and Isabelle Huppert as Charmant-Killman give us a vastly entertaining black comedy of venality and schadenfreude, something that's dark, witty, assured and not completely cynical. What could be better than that? Well, how about nailing all those politicians who earn modest salaries as our elected representatives and then wind up as millionaires shortly after they retire from office. Somebody send for Jeanne Charmant-Killman.
The DVD transfer is fine. There is an interesting extra on the Region 1 release and I hope is on the Region 2 which discusses how the movie was made. The idea came from the Elf Aquitaine scandal in France, which was uncovered in 1994. The executives of this huge oil firm were caught in the middle of the biggest fraud since WWII. They used the firm as their own piggybank, spending huge amounts of the company's money on everything from political kickbacks to expensive mistresses, jewelry and villas. French magistrate Eva Joly uncovered the rock and smashed a large number of the scurrying bugs. Chabrol says at the start, with tongue in cheek, I think, that any resemblance to actual events and people is entirely coincidental.