Comedy of Power is a French movie loosely based on a scandal involving a whole series of shady deals between agencies of the French government and various corporations, involving fraudulent government contracts, money laundering, bribes to corrupt Third World governments, Swiss bank accounts, and on and on.
I’m not going to pretend I could follow all the players and their various connections and crimes, but I don’t think that’s all presented thoroughly anyway, as those specifics aren’t the focus of the movie. The movie really is about the judge (Isabelle Huppert) assigned to investigate the corruption. (In the French legal system, she’s more like a combination judge and special prosecutor.)
The judge is on screen for probably 80% of the movie, so it really is her story. She is heroic in some respects, in that she doggedly pursues the wrongdoers and refuses to be corrupted. Yet there is a coldness to her that seems to go beyond just being principled and diligent.
You wonder how much her gender affects how she’ll be perceived. I got the impression that the filmmaker worked in a lot of gender role reversals to highlight just that issue. Not only is the judge female, but when another judge is brought in to work with her on the case, she is female as well. Their secretary or paralegal or whatever he would be called is male. The judge’s husband is clearly the subordinate partner in the marriage (which he’s not real happy about). It’s the judge and not the husband who is engaging in at least some degree of flirting, in both her professional and personal life, which he grimly tolerates.
Then again, the corrupt government officials and their powerful business allies are all male, so it’s not like everything about the movie is a role reversal like that. But certainly the judge is far closer to a traditional male lead in this kind of movie than a female lead.
So I wonder if the times she comes across as a bitch—ruthless, ambitious, unfeeling toward her spouse, whatever—are times that one would similarly be shaking one’s head at a male in that role and commenting what an asshole he can be, or if it wouldn’t even be an issue. That is, if this were a male judge, maybe he’d seem more unambiguously a tough guy hero doing what he has to to stand up to the bad guys.
The movie has numerous opportunities to become more melodramatic, more conventionally movielike, but really it doesn’t take them. The film raises many questions as it goes along about who all is involved in the corruption, how fettered the judge will be in her pursuit of her prey, whether violence will be used to stop her, whether only underlings will take the fall, whether whatever punishments result will be slaps on the wrist, who will turn out to be in cahoots with whom, etc. But it never gives a simple answer to any of these. It doesn’t go with whatever will provide the most action, or whatever will enable good to triumph over evil, or whatever will enable evil to triumph over good.
She’s fighting a mostly good but not pure fight, in mostly defensible but not pure ways, and it’s all very sloppy and ambiguous—just like real life—to what extent the good guys win and to what extent the bad guys win. Is the system of corruption able to slap her away and continue business as usual? Sort of, but not without suffering some losses in the process. Ultimately this is an indecisive battle in an ongoing war.
The judge as a character is never less than interesting, and almost every scene has a certain amount of intensity and psychological intrigue to it, both her interrogations of slimy members of the political and business elite, and her domestic situation. Probably the former a bit more, but the growing tension in her marriage, and her coming to prefer the company of her husband’s ne’er-do-well nephew who is staying with them, is solid as well.
Still, while Comedy of Power never lost me, it’s a mostly slow, talky film that always seems on the verge of providing more action than it really does. I came away from it feeling like I’d seen an intelligent, skillfully made film, but really neither having been greatly entertained nor moved in a significant way emotionally.