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By Matthew Sorrento | May 24, 2007

It’s comforting to know that a legendary filmmaker like Claude Chabrol is still around to contribute new work. But master or no, we shouldn’t regard him as the primary creative force behind his new film, “A Comedy of Power.” “Comedy” is a well-designed vehicle for the director’s long-time star, Isabelle Huppert, whose focused portrayal makes this film a well-honed character study. While a minor effort compared to Frears’ “The Queen,” “Comedy” is another vehicle designed to celebrate the skill of its central player.

Though Huppert eventually takes center-stage, “Comedy’s” opening minutes focus on Michel Humeau (François Berléand), a high-office government official who gets arrested by French feds as he leaves work. His quick arrest leaves us in sympathy, even though his character drops hints that he’s not always so swell of a guy. But before he exchanges his valuables for prison garments, we are peeking in on Jeanne Charmant Killman (Huppert), a judge who’s out to nail him for nabbing government funds. Her case becomes a major focus, but the full picture of her duties, to both her profession and to her family, realize her character.

Jeanne’s dedication to her job, which we learn follows her home in more ways then she’d like, proves upsetting to her husband (Robin Renucci). He appears to be a progressive man once undaunted by an overachieving wife, but now regrets his choice of a mate. Jeanne seems to connect more with her quite mature nephew, Félix (Thomas Chabrol, son of the director), who’s moved in and seems ready to move past their platonic relationship at her first welcoming signal.

As Jeanne battles for justice, the higher powers in government resist her, which creates the film’s story arch. It promises a tonal shift toward suspense halfway through, but aside from a near-fatal sabotage of Jeanne’s car, the punches are never thrown. Instead, the heart of the narrative lies in Jeanne’s struggle to not only fight against corruption but also convince those in her personal life that her demanding profession is an absolute duty. She is resilient to the male authorities at work, who greatly outnumber her and are welcomed to through their weight around. But Jeanne’s perseverance during the day makes the fortitude she must bring home all that more difficult to muster.

Chabrol works in long takes – his camera pans casually to sample anything the frame may need. But this proves to be gloss over the film’s subject. To describe Jeanne’s story as one about female empowerment would narrow the focus to one level. Jeanne defines herself by resisting the demands of authority and her family. For her, fulfillment comes during the weary moments, when the opponents have backed off to give her a chance to reflect on her battles. At these times, we see her integrity in full bloom, and Chabrol’s approach in “Comedy” at its heights.

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