Comedy of Power

February, 2007, Mystery

A Comedy of Power

What do Claude Chabrol and Clint Eastwood have in common? Both are accomplished; Eastwood has acted in 65 movies during his long career, while Chabrol has directed an astounding 69 films in his. Each is multi-talented; Eastwood acts, directs & composes, while Chabrol writes and directs. They were born less than a month apart in 1930, which means they’ll soon celebrate their 77th birthdays - - Eastwood at the very end of May and Chabrol in late June. Most importantly for movie-goers, both work behind the camera with great clarity, avoiding gimmicky timeline techniques and gonzo cinematography in favor of straight-forward candor, suggesting that the stories they tell are far more important than the egos of the men telling them. Best of all, as they near four-score years in age, they’re both still hard at work; entertaining, challenging and questioning audiences.

Chabrol’s trademark Gallic cynicism is much in evidence here, as indicated by the title of this acerbic examination of the Elf Acquitaine scandal, dubbed by The Manchester Guardian as “probably the biggest political and corporate scandal to hit a western democracy since the Second World War”. Elf, once the largest government-owned enterprise in France and the seventh largest global oil company, was found to have been looted of nearly half a billion dollars by its senior executives, the very people The French government appointed to run it. For many years, Elf operated as a private bank for its management team, whose members spent lavishly on jewelry, fine art and villas for various mistresses in addition to bribes for political favors related to Elf’s extensive holdings in Africa’s former French colonies. The company’s top three officials were fined and imprisoned in 2003 and the disgraced company merged into a competitor.

Isabelle Huppert, (8 Women, The Time of the Wolf) leads an easily recognized cast of French character actors as she portrays Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a magistrate determined to drag the open-secret of Elf’s graft and corruption into the courtroom, even if it leaves her colleagues and husband behind in the dust. (The French legal system empowers its magistrates with a mix of authority that America divides between judges and prosecuting attorneys, providing permission to subpoena, arrest, interrogate and imprison in a single member of the judiciary during criminal investigations.) Petit and innocently freckled, Huppert’s magistrate barrels into the lives of Elf’s principal conspirators, who are politically so well collected they initially refuse to take her and her investigation seriously. Armed only with boundless energy and complete distain for the self-important toadies she encounters in Elf’s litter of cosseted male egos, Charmant-Killman, (the last half of her name speaks for itself) she alternately dispenses intimidation and humiliation so ferociously her male colleagues on the bench try to buy her off with a bigger office and job title, then harness her to another magistrate before reassigning her to less publicized cases shortly after she’s brought Elf’s key players to justice. Defiant to the end, she merely shrugs off the bureaucratic payoff and vows to keep on swinging for the fences…

Charbol’s style may be as plain as a Midwestern schoolmarm, but that simplicity packs a wallop when directed at these corporate crooks; under the director’s sparse version of events, those involved in this scandal emerge as self-absorbed buffoons, blinded by their own pomposity. Swilling expensive cognac while puffing on monstrous cigars, these fat cats aren’t nearly as dangerous as they are laughable. Mendacity in its various guises has become a recurring theme for the director; in Comedy of Power, he pronounces judgment on Elf’s gross criminality by mocking its perpetrators; the real-life criminals will wince at their portrayal. Not since the Enron’s leadership was debunked in the documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room have the personalities involved in corporate malfeasance been so piteously lampooned. 

A greater knowledge of Elf’s history and some grasp of the French legal system would surely increase audience appreciation for this delicious piece of scandal-mongering, but under Chabrol’s quietly effectively control, he spins a tale with universal appeal, enabling Huppert and her supporting cast to make this tale of white collar crime one of the best thrillers in years.


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