Corruption in Elf-Acquitaine, France’s massively profitable national oil company, is usually described in the States in terms of corporate embezzlement or sideline sexual improprieties; but it also revealed the astonishing tenacity of European colonialism, which has found ways of persisting under new guises past its official death. Western European nations other than France were eventually implicated in the scandal.
Made by Claude Chabrol only a few years after the case was legally resolved, L’ivresse du pouvoir is a delicious satirical comedy—and in a genre that usually excludes humor for the sake of paranoid “realism” and stark suspense. Isabelle Huppert gives a fascinating performance as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, the driven investigating magistrate based on Eva Joly. Early on, the great pleasure of Chabrol’s measured, Hitchcockian film lies in sitting back and watching Huppert’s Jeanne make her arrested arrogant CEO, Humeau, squirm. Jeanne wants to make examples of miscreants. She is on the side of the angels.
But the film gradually turns, downward, revealing a more surprising distribution of virtues and vices—and of power at a given moment. “Am I not supposed to be the most powerful person in France?” Jeanne asks of her boss with exquisite irony as she feels a vast conspiracy thwarting her attempt to arrive at the bottom of things. Humeau, it turns out, is not as powerful as he once seemed but only “a tree hiding the forest.” In his final encounter with Jeanne, in a hospital corridor, he suddenly strikes us as sympathetic and Jeanne, whose husband has attempted suicide owing to her neglect, less so. Power damages whosever foot it is on, and the presiding judge’s charge that Jeanne has “lost [her] objectivity” may reflect, may be, the truth.
An exhilarating entertainment observing high-stake games of oneupsmanship.
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