This conversation really happened:

"What movie did you just see?"

"Comedy of Power."

"Oh, was it funny?"

"Yeah, it was a light comedy."

"Was it a romantic comedy?"

"No, it was about a judge, sort of like we have district attorneys, who's assigned to investigate a massively corrupt company kind of like Enron, and how it fucks up her life."


"Light comedies are different in France."

Claude Chabrol invented the nouvelle vague, and if he'd never done anything else with his career ever, that would leave me eternally in his debt. He's more or less the Hitchcock of France, and his best films are all mysteries, at least nominally. L'ivresse du pouvoir is not a mystery.

That is not the same as "it's bad," but it's not really all that good. Isabelle Huppert, one of the truly great actresses of French cinema, plays Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a district judge investigating the indiscretions of Michel Humeau (François Berléand), the chairman of an unnamed company, which in some indeterminate fashion controls the financial fates of several other companies and apparently some small countries. In other words, Enron. A title card opens the film, assuring us that it is a work of fiction, but this is only partially true: it is in fact based on a French scandal very much like our own in which a company responsible for the financial fates of other companies was found to be ridden with corruption at all levels of management.

The problem with "ripped from the headlines" films is that they don't have a whole lot of traction if you don't know the headline (it takes a truly mythic story such as All the President's Men to overcome this). Which both is and isn't Chabrol's problem: he can't be blamed for my ignorance, but he should be able to give me something interesting to keep my attention when the story founders. In the case of his New Wave stablemates (especially Jean-Luc Godard), story was usually the least important element of filmmaking, anyway; and while Chabrol has always been a bit more of a storyteller, he's traditionally been able to create compelling atmosphere and characters.

That doesn't really happen, here. Jeanne is interesting - how could she not be, with Huppert playing her? - but what happens to her generally isn't. Her jealous and lonely husband isn't in the film enough to register, and people drift in and out of her professional world at intervals too erratic to make much of an emotional punch. The plot picks up a bit at the end, and Jeanne undergoes some actual crisis, but for the bulk of the film she is simply too competent and too in control for the movie's own good: it never seems remotely credible that she will not eventually emerge victorious through her dogged perseverance. There is no conflict because there is no tension.

There are, however, some genuinely pleasing setpieces. Jeanne is a genius, and there is fun to be had in watching her effortlessly trap the venal executives who parade in front of her desk. And most of those executives are amusingly drawn, although often they are too broad to work effectively as satire. It's a feel-good comedy, essentially; and who the hell wants to feel good watching a French film?