The firstand maybe the bestjoke in Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power comes before the credits: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is, as they say, coincidental." OK, so it's not the knee-slapper it was in Primary Colors. But that wise-guy "as they say" is one of the few cracks in the master's deadpan as Chabrol conducts his own quietly amused inquiry into the biggest public scandal of postwar France: the rampant corruption and political chicanery within the state-owned Elf Aquitaine oil company.
Enron with a libido, the debacle known as "l'affaire Elf" found high-living execs funneling away more than half a billion dollars, using bribes, kickbacks, expensive mistresses, and influence- peddling pillow talk to grease the pistons of commerce all the way to Taiwan. By the time the case went to trial in 2001, the Elf investigation, led by a tenacious juge d'instruction named Eva Joly, had laid open a network of alleged political fixing extending from Mitterrand to the party of German chancellor Helmut Kohl. But the company's upper-crust elite, with sympathetic peers at France's highest levels of government and industry, got off light.
Sex, money, threats, class warthe makings of juicy scandal-sheet entertainment are here, dripping ink and bile. Yet anyone who expects Enron-caliber rancor will be puzzled by Comedy of Power, an enjoyable but curiously weightless trifle that lowers rather than raises the temperature of the affair. Comedy of Power has to be the most polite, untroubled conspiracy film since the genre first tapped a phone.
Chabrol focuses on the investigator, here named Jeanne Charmant-Killman. Like Judge Joly, she's an outsider by virtue of class, birth, and gender; she uses her cramped office and meager furnishings as a leveling agentproof to her upper-class targets that they've truly descended into hell. The director's best idea was to cast Isabelle Huppert, whose fierce concentration in any role can make a viewer feel like he's sweating through an IRS audit. Head cocked, jaw set like the edge of a shoveland as alluring in her hot-for-teacher horn rims as Tina FeyHuppert makes a grand inquisitor.
The "comedy" results from the seesawing balance of power, as the unnamed company's masters of the universe are hauled from their perches in the sky to the bowels of the judge's chambers. Cha-brol and cinematographer Eduardo Serra capture this plummet from fortune in one effortless two-and-a-half-minute opening shot. A god's-eye view of Paris pulls back to reveal Godthe company CEO, Humeau, played by François Berléandgazing out his office window before he heads for the elevator. The camera hesitates as he leaves the building, as if sensing the gendarmes waiting outside. Cue the credits. At the station house, the cops force the itchy big shot to drop troua humiliation that prompts the words "un film de Claude Chabrol."
There's little else disruptive about Comedy of Power, which works to its disadvantage. Chabrol directs with an unfussy economy honed over a 50-year career (and counting), but Comedy of Power is such a hermetic, tidily composed film that it evaporates almost as you watch it. Deliberately vague about the company and the import of its wrongdoingeither to avoid a legal tangle, or in the understandably cynical belief that any multinational conglomerate can fill in the blankthe movie keeps Elf's chilling political machinations offscreen, except for a chorus of cigar-chomping fat cats too cartoonish to take seriously.
Intended or not, the implication is that l'affaire Elf ultimately didn't matternot because the system it exposed was too powerful and deeply entrenched, but because it was essentially a victimless crime.
Even so, by draining the story of outrageeither from those appalled by Elf's costly transgressions, or from the many who considered Joly a wannabe Ken StarrChabrol creates an unexpectedly humane portrait of bubble worlds in collision. Humeau and Jeanne eventually lose control of their spheres of influence, but powerlessness turns out not to be a tragedy. Neither does Comedy of Powerexcept for the clowns left holding the reins of the world.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.