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Arming Isabelle

For about 30 years, Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert have cultivated a secret revolution on the big screen. And their new film, "Comedy of Power," provides more ammunition. By Katja Nicodemus

She has killed her daughter for him, her parents, an entire family and even herself. In seven films, she has lied, betrayed, fired a gun and spread poison through the world. For about 30 years, actress Isabelle Huppert has dragged director Claude Chabrol with her into battle. She is the guerilla warrior of his cinema, his muse, his accompanist and an ally with a flexible arsenal. She was armed with a pinch of deadly powder in "Violette Nozière," with a shotgun in "La Ceremonie" and now, as an investigating magistrate in Chabrol's new film, "Comedy of Power," her weapons are the legal articles of a French judge. Sometimes Chabrol dreams of putting Isabelle Huppert on the big screen with just a machine gun in her hands, letting her mow everything down.

Huppert and Chabrol - an odd mix of feminism and class struggle, female aggression and anti-establishmentism that adds up to an unorthodox gallery of heroines on the silver screen. It's a symbiosis of director and actor unique in today's cinema.

Chabrol and Huppert on the set of "Comedy of Power." All images © L'Ivresse du Pouvoir

In an instinctive, sometimes brazen manner, the old-hand Claude Chabrol has in recent years relied on the enormous precision and great presence of his favourite actress: On her practically deadpan expression, into which may be read all depths and heights of passion. On her acting: with two twitches of the corners of her mouth she reveals an all-embracing lust for life and petty bourgeois despondency. On her electrifying huffiness that proclaims her utter impatience with the dull, labouring aspects of life. He directed films like the solid murder drama "Nightcap", which is basically pure Huppert. In the betrayal farce, "The Swindle", he lets her stride through a threadbare, wandering screenplay, knowing full well that Huppert could handle anything; yes, that in the end even the silliest story line rolls off her and you are left remembering only your impression of her. With Huppert, Chabrol - great analyser of the bourgeoisie - opened another universe: that of the petty bourgeois shipwrecked on herself and the shoals of the world. Chabrol and Huppert become one person on the silver screen, an idea, a countenance, a complicity personified.

In his new film, "Comedy of Power", Claude Chabrol liberates Huppert more than ever. And this freedom releases every latent meanness and subversive energy that ever infused their work. Huppert plays Jeanne Charmant Killman, an investigating magistrate who rakes through the muck of Parisian finance aristocracy. Chabrol has her uncover a corruption affair that reaches into the highest levels of the state. In fact, he does little more than point the camera at Huppert, who, with her red leather gloves, her red bag and red glasses, is drawn into the fray of interrogations, house searches and compromising deals. Just watch how she enters her small, stuffy office in the Paris Palace of Justice to grill her first big fish. She counters the arrogance of the industry chief with professionalism borne of confidence in victory. She pores over files and drops hints about the evidence she already has. In total control over her turf, she forbids her well-dressed opponent to smoke, only to light one up herself a bit later. Huppert only needs these scenes and a few tiny gestures to make it clear that she is on the scene to kick those kings of bribery, growing fat in the sleaze of Parisian politics - yes, to kick the whole corrupt bunch of them, with pleasure and with force, squarely in the shins.

In "Comedy of Power", Charmant Killman (Huppert) forbids her opponent to smoke, only to light up later herself.

But in fact for Chabrol the corruption scandal - which plays on the affair around the state oil company Elf Aquitane - is just the surface story. His investigator is also leading another, more difficult campaign, with unclear front-lines and changing enemies. She is fighting the affectations of power of the company boss with the three secretaries fluttering around him as he moves between office and elevator, organizing his weekend with his lover. The suspects are fatted officials in leather chairs who complain - over cigars and cognac - about those piranha-like career women. And in the office waits a boss who finds this judge's efficiency sinister. She blazes away against a wall of patriarchal arrogance and patronizing attitudes, and against codes of condescension. In short: As is almost always the case with Chabrol-Huppert, this film is also about relationships between men and women, about their age-old rules of coexistence, in short, about everything.

Descartes (Jaques Boudet): Complaining over cigars and cognac.

And as often is the case in Chabrol's films, sexual and class conflicts in "Comedy of Power" are superimposed and mingled together for so long that they can no longer be disentangled. Such as when the industrial masterminds rant over the fact that the judge came as an au pair girl to her husband's upper middle-class family. Or when Killman must show deference to a gentleman manager because of her lower income.

It is her not unsympathetic pleasure in social climbing, her pleasure in her own prominence and her image as the merciless investigator, that binds the heroine of "Comedy of Power" with her filmic sisters. All great Chabrol-Huppert characters yearn to ascend, sometimes higher than their environment allows. Even the young Violette Nozière, heroine of the 1978 film of the same name, tries to escape the narrowness of her bourgeois surroundings. In her parents' home, she plays the down-to-earth girl in knee socks who hires herself out afternoons in as a whore in a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. With gifts of gold, Violette buys the affections of an arrogant upstart from a fine family, who ends up leaving her in the lurch. When her double life is threatened with exposure, the 18-year-old simply poisons her parents.

To ascend, and particularly to escape the province of Normandy, is the goal of Emma Bovary in Chabrol's 1991 interpretation of Flaubert. With astonishing empathy, Chabrol portrays the brutal nonchalance of her aristocratic lover and of Emma's petty bourgeois, romantically combustible insecurity, which drags her under. To ascend, at least a bit higher than the third storey of a proletarian rear building, is also what the abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud seeks in "Story of Women". Her money, secretly earned, is meant to fulfil the artist's dream, the longing for a career as a singer after a life on the other side of dirty staircases. But her husband, newly returned from war, feels humiliated by his wife's new self-confidence - and denounces her. "Story of Women" is one of those fun-loving Huppert rebellions, above which a merciless fatefulness hangs from the outset. Chabrol insistently illuminates the everyday world of Vichy France, which officially collaborates with the Nazis but then punishes abortion with the guillotine. "They are all men, how can they understand?" Marie says of her judges.

Naturally, the investigating magistrate in Chabrol's new film rails against boundaries. She stumbles into a conspiracy of politics and industry, a legal system that does the bidding of the powerful. And she despairs over a husband who feels threatened by her workalcoholism. He, at home in their huge, upper middle-class apartment, nurtures his depression and changes light bulbs "that would have broken soon."

Charmant Killman (Huppert) with Philippe (Robin Renucci): A husband who feels threatened by her workaholism.

Claude Chabrol once called himself a "cryptofeminist", and certainly was not trying to be cute. But nothing would be more of an anathema to him than to turn his characters into shining symbols of the women's movement. True, they are victims. Victims of their background, of their men, of patriarchal relationships, of clichee-ridden yearnings. But they are to their very core independent, contradictory and complicated authors of their own fate. Driven by narcissism, arrogance and megalomania, plagued by destructive passions and cheap romanticism. As touching as Violette Nozière may be when she lets herself be used to the bone by her beloved, so is she ice-cold as the murderer of her parents, standing before the court with her angel face, explaining that she was abused. Emma Bovary is small-minded in her pomposity, her contempt for her idiotic husband, her snobbism toward the servants. No one would feel solidarity with the heiress of a Swiss chocolatier who in "Nightcap" puts her entire family to sleep with a homoeopathic sedative. And the unscrupulous abortionist in "Story of Women" frightens us when she shrugs her shoulders and walks away from the death of a client, after getting paid for the botched operation.

Boldi (Jean-Francoise Balmer) with Humeau (Francois Berleand): Codes of condescension.

And first impressions aside, the investigating magistrate in Chabrol's new film is no noble servant of the state. Sometimes the omnipotence of her authority seems to go to her head. Whether she insinuates herself into the office of a company president with a search warrant and a team of reinforcements or - with a lordly gesture - demands the key to the safe and confiscates laptops, she wears her triumph all too openly on her face.

No, these women are no angels. They are clever, cold, ambitious, scheming and all too often thirsty for money and power. It's hard to really like them. But it's easy to appreciate their doggedness, even the obsessive energy of their drive. And their futile protests.

For it is, in fact, in their failure that the Chabrol-Huppert characters grow beyond themselves and their ambitions. Only when they flailingly struggle to keep on going, when they fight back one last time, do they reach their true greatness. Like the abortionist in "Story of Women" who, standing before the entrance to the guillotine, full of hate and desperation, fires a blasphemous prayer heavenward: "Holy Mary, full of shit, may the fruit of your body rot."

Chabrol gives his best triumph in downfall to the duo of Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire in his film "La Ceremonie". With high calibre ammunition, the letter carrier and servant girl mow down a prettified family in the salon of their luxury home. Suddenly, the high-class characters are merely gentrified splatter in a struggle begun long ago, before any bargaining began. Bonnaire and Huppert shoot voluptuously at the library, the embodiment of unattainable education, and turn off the TV on which Così fan tutte is being broadcast. In the silence after the slaughter, in the pause after the murder and as the blood slowly spreads across the parquet, the two women are suddenly rapt with the symbolic power of the moment.

Erika (Maryline Canto) with Charmant Killman: Raking through the muck of Parisian finance aristocracy.

And who would deny Jeanne Charmant Killman her victory in defeat, her moment of satisfaction before everything goes haywire? Whereas other Chabrol-Huppert characters die or end up in jail, this awkward judge is forcibly promoted, which for Chabrol is just about the same, because she is taken off the case. Just before she leaves her office, she is offered another bonus by her boss, who has betrayed her to the politicians. And in this moment everything is shot down: the patronizing arrogance of power and the unconsciousness of a woman, who ends up a victim of the very structures against which she had struggled during her entire career. And even the machine gun that Chabrol would love to put into Huppert 's hand suddenly seems to appear in the room. The realist and resigned dreamer knows his characters' logic is too subtle for revolution. All the same, the judge looks at her boss for a moment, as if he were an annoying insect. Then she says with perfect casualness: "Keep the money. And buy yourself some tougher balls."


This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on July 7, 2006.

Katja Nicodemus is the film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: Toby Axelrod - let's talk european