Movie review: ‘A Comedy of Power’

The Portland International Film Festival didn’t seem to have any explicitly gay movies but themes of gender and power abound, certainly so in Sunday’s premiere screening of the French A Comedy of Power. A so called commingling of comedy and thriller A Comedy of Power emerges more like a look into the relationships between husband and wife, female friends and coworkers, as one woman intently pursues the corrupt political establishment. Whereas the American Law and Order or the British Touching Evil might take this story and make it a crime drama rife with the sounds of sirens and smashing gavels, the French intertwine the main character, Judge Jeanne Charmant-Killman’s (Isabelle Huppert), desire to clean up the government with the story of her tenuous relationship with a husband feeling overshadowed, and her intimate bond with a female peer. It accomplishes all this with a distinct lack of intrusive soundtrack or glorious camera work. It’s real. It’d raw. It’s psychological. It’s French.

In such a film uncertainty and fluctuation are key. It opens with the nervous allergic itch-scratching of a soon to be imprisoned CEO who meets our extremely shrewd and powerful Judge very soon after. The first interrogation we see, coupled with her interaction with her husband, seem to portray Jeanne as the aggressive woman-monster archetype (“the Piranha”) we have become so familiar with. Her husband’s coworkers have even taken to calling him Mr. Charmant-Killman. And while I did catch the subtle intrusion of pink rubber gloves as Jeanne washes the dishes this insert did little to assure me that the film saw her power as a positive aspect of her character rather than as an infringement on her femininity. But the film is shrewder than I. This is merely a small interruption of the quite serious narrative with that of comedy. In fact, it might be the only truly amusing aspect of the film. And while the Power may paint Jeanne’s workaholic nature as troublesome to anyone wishing to lead a full and happy life, it also sees this same shortfall as saintly altruism. And while it is also easy to feel sorry for her neglected husband, who seems to truly love her, the film switches your sympathies quickly back to Jeanne. She is extremely intelligent and not uncaring. She’s not to be taken in, even by those who have appeared to be on her side in the past. And when yet another corrupt high-ranking official brings another woman into her department as her equal expecting that, because they are women, they will bring each other down in a rain of hair and nails, both recognize this and rise above their desire to do exactly that.

The happy ending that the title implies is never fully satisfied, and yet I was quite surprised to hear my coworker exclaim at the end, “Well that was depressing.” Ambiguity and a sort of longing ennui are emotions the French excel at portraying, and you will feel none of the same satisfaction or disappointment that you would after a Law and Order verdict. Nevertheless, feelings of sympathy and pride will abound. A comedy it’s not, but perhaps that is precisely the funniest part.

A Comedy of Power plays at the fest this Sunday the 18th at 7:30 at Whitsell Auditorium and Tuesday the 20th at Broadway. A complete schedule can be found on the NW Film Center website.

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