French films are often badly received at international film festivals; for some reason their very “Frenchness” seems to bring out the ire of the critics. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down recently at the Berlin Film Festival for Claude Chabrol’s L’Ivresse du Pouvoir (A Comedy of Power). I needn’t have worried: veteran director Chabrol showed that he’s finally got out of his recent rut. The critics at the screening seemed almost relieved when they gave L’Ivresse an enthusiastic round of applause.
Loosely based on the Elf corruption scandal that rocked the French political and business worlds during the 1990s, L’Ivresse sets investigating judge Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) to uncovering a complicated case of embezzlement and fraud. She begins by arresting a man named Humeau (François Berléand), the head of a conglomerate, but the more she gets involved in the case, the more she finds her way blocked and her personal life falling apart.
The film’s message is deeply pessimistic and could have been deeply depressing: It suggests that nothing can be done to fight power-fueled corruption. Like the silver in Conrad’s Nostromo, everything and everyone touched by it is corrupted; there is no escape from its destructive influence.
Yet, while L’Ivresse does have a serious point to make, it plays its hand lightly. You can read the English title in the Shakespearean sense of comedy (as in, it’s not a tragedy), but the film is also simply funny. Chabrol understands his actors and gives Huppert a part that plays completely to her comic strengths, even though we don’t often get to see them; they are underestimated, as if directors can only imagine her having nervous breakdowns or stabbing herself with scissors (see La Pianiste), but she has a lightness of touch that is perfect for Chabrol’s mischievous, slightly old-fashioned comedies. It’s also nice to see her having so much fun playing the role, echoing her character’s enjoyment (at least to begin with) of her role as chief interrogator.
It is perhaps because of the constraints imposed by the film’s relationship to reality – the Elf affair was a massive scandal – that Chabrol and co-screenwriter Odile Barksi have gone for this lightness of tone. Just look at the names of the characters; they take Dickensian joy in their own impish invention: Huppert’s judge is Charmant-Killman, which is both true and utterly false; the smooth, good-looking CEO is Sibaud (a pun on “si beau,” or “so handsome”); a lawyer is Parlebas (“speak quietly”).
I knew that things were going to be all right at the Berlin screening when during the opening credits Humeau is asked to undress before entering prison. As he takes down his trousers a credit appears on the screen: “Un film de Claude Chabrol.” Welcome back, Claude.Favorite