Thanks to the blitz of gross-out laugh-fests (well, one would hope you would laugh) that began way back when with [i]American Pie[/i], we've come to expect something perpetually funny with our film comedies. We look for laugh-out-loud moments, for scenes that induce chuckles, for dialogue that sparkles with wit and provokes a smirk if not a howl or two. So in a movie like [b]L'Ivresse Du Pouvoir[/b], whose English title is [i]A Comedy of Power[/i], you'd be forgiven for thinking you'll be getting a humorously satirical look at the power-mongering that goes on among the business and political elites of France. Well, not quite. The movie harks back to a rather older definition of the term 'comedy' that, when it comes down to it, isn't really very funny at all.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a judge at the top of her professional game who's hugely famous for the big trials she adjudicates. Bent on taking down the top executives of an unnamed state-owned company, Jeanne chases them down relentlessly - from the allergy-plagued Michel Humeau (Francois Berleand), to the nervously earnest Jean Baptise Holeo (Philippe Duclos), and also the eagerly effusive Boldi (Jean-Francois Balmer). Even as she's courted with phone calls and crates of wine by Humeau's coldly charming successor Jacques Sibaud (Patrick Bruel), nothing can deter Jeanne from her goal - not even the dissolution of her marriage to bitterly emasculated husband Philippe (Robin Renucci), or attempts by unseen government forces to pair her up with another judge Erika (Marilyne Canto) in a bid to distract her from her crusade. Can the icily determined Jeanne triumph over the state, big business and even her own boss?
As already indicated, [b]LIdP[/b] is very much not a comedy in the way we're accustomed to talking about comedies. Rather, it's a dramatic work that bears some marks of satire. Writer-director Claude Chabrol certainly starts out in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, merrily informing his audience right upfront that his film is not meant to reflect real events or people and any similarity to such is purely "coincidental" - or some might say, "fortuitous". The web of intrigue and blatant, state-sanctioned corruption he weaves, however, has its roots very clearly in the Elf Affair of the 1990s, when chief executives of state-owned oil company Elf-Aquitaine, with links to the political elite, were said to have been involved in misappropriating millions of euros worth of bribes to secure business contracts overseas (oh, and embezzlement too, since you can't have a good corruption movie without [i]some[/i] old-fashioned embezzlement). Admittedly, I had no idea that [b]LIdP[/b] was based on this old scandal while watching the movie, but it is quite clear from the way it is staged, almost documentary-style in parts as the chief judge bent on ferreting out the crooks interviews her quarries one by one, that its inspiration - despite Chabrol's stated intention - is very real indeed.
However, [b]LIdP[/b], with its depressingly true to life ending, only takes satire so far. The movie too quickly becomes a disappointingly bog-standard drama that doesn't throw up anything particularly original in its examination of one woman's obsession and everything she'll give up for it. There are some nice moments, particularly the explosive fight between Jeanne and Philippe when he yells at her that he can no longer suffer her fame and the bodyguards who crowd their personal space. But, while the distance between them [i]is [/i]palpable, despite Jeanne's reassurances to the contrary, Philippe's frustration never quite sparks into life. It's almost blindingly obvious how Jeanne's accomplishments and single-minded focus on her work are increasingly alienating her from Philippe, and Chabrol's lack of subtlety in this regard lends his movie an air of emotional detachment that, while appropriately reflective of its main character, doesn't make for a very engaging film. The discourse on the ineradicability of human greed and selfishness is handled rather more subtly, as talking heads plot and strategise around Jeanne... suggesting that there is an impenetrable forest of bureaucracy out there that she just can't navigate or hope to triumph over in any permanent way. But it leads to a thriller that lacks punch, a reveal (re the identity of the mole in her office) that feels hollow, and a drama that never quite manages to summon up much intrigue.
None of these faults can be laid at the door of [b]LIdP[/b]'s leading lady, however. Huppert is frequently the best thing in any movie she's in - so magnetic a presence is she that you'd be hard-pressed to take your eyes off her, regardless of which luckless fool is trying to hang on to his or her portion of the silver screen when she's in the same scene. Unsurprisingly, she is the reason this movie remains a worthwhile watch - surely a minor entry in her own body of work, Huppert nevertheless sees Jeanne through pretty much everything: paranoia, frustration, fear, vulnerability... while making Jeanne as ball-breakingly confident a character as you'd expect, given what she sets out to accomplish in the course of the movie. It's a shame that the movie around her isn't quite impressive enough to keep up with her talents.
A comedy with few laughs - and in fact, not much of a comedy at all given the speed with which its satiric bite dissipates - [b]LIdP[/b] could have been riveting and important. But those are adjectives that can really only be applied to the film's leading lady; the rest of the movie is mediocre at best, lacking both mystery and tension. While it remains watchable for the most part, and certainly Huppert does her best to make it so, this is one for completists only.