By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Comedy of Power,” Kino, 2006]
Like it or not, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave which, we should not be allowed to forget, will always be to film culture roughly what the Age of Enlightenment was to Western thought. Or what movable type was to public literacy. Or what “The Origin of Species” was to biology: a volcanic epiphany, a revolution. This was when the world realized that movies no longer needed to be manufactured by industries but could instead be made by individuals, rebels, idiosyncrats, with more mobile postwar equipment and on-location chutzpah. Chaplin and “Citizen Kane” notwithstanding, this was when, suddenly, movies could be art, made by self-expressive artists (not craftsmen or entertainers) who didn’t require guidance or approval from corporations or governments.
That’s how the story goes, and even if it’s only partially true (most of the New Wavers turned pro dealmakers very quickly), the films are still with us, all prickly and moody and discombobulating, and most of the moviemakers are still hard at play in the fields of cinema. Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Varda and Resnais are still productive, though none of these gray lions rivals Claude Chabrol for energy and volume of output he’s made 25 features in the last quarter-century alone, and only about half of them have seen the inside of American movie theaters. Chabrol looms so unpretentiously large that his movies succeed or fail entirely in Chabrolian terms is it prime Chabrol, or just average Chabrol?
The true French heir to both Hitchcock and Lang, Chabrol has famously been all about crime its motivations, its fallout, its ripple-effects and ironies. His newest film, 2006’s “Comedy of Power,” is a crime drama of an eccentrically offbeat variety. Fictionalizing the notorious corporate-scandal “Elf Affair” that sent scores of corrupt French CEOs and oil execs to prison in 2003, Chabrol casually stretches in the sun of a legal procedural that typically has less to do with facts than character and social intercourse. Like Enron writ even larger, the case had all to do with mountains of absconded public money, and yet would probably still wilt the interest of any other filmmaker (or screenwriter in this case, frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski). But as usual, Chabrol views the situation from an unlikely personal perspective: through the prickly, confrontational eyes of Isabelle Huppert as the chief investigating judge, who takes no greater delight in her work than when she can corner a rich man and maker him sputter in horrified rage. Huppert, 53 herself and as vibrant a force as ever, sauces up the movie so indelibly that Comedy of Power evolves into a post-feminist character study don’t expect suspenseful machinations or unrealistic courtroom shenanigans. It’s all about the people, and Huppert’s workaholic avenging angel, dangerously underfed and self-amused, is fabulously, pathologically invulnerable even as the murder threats pour in. Therein lies the woman’s charm, and Huppert’s star power. Released as well: Chabrol and Huppert’s first work together, the true-crime teenage-sociopath daydream “Violette” (1978).
From another New Wave planet specifically, the era of Brazil’s “Cinema Novo” comes Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” (1971), notorious as the first and possibly the only film ever made about cannibals that, insofar as it takes sides, soberly favors the moral system of the flesh-eaters over their colonial victims. Naturally, it’s a comedy. Herzogian in its realism (a year before “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), Pereira dos Santos’ movie is shot like a tropical documentary, but it’s set in the 1500s, when the French and the Belgians (among other European forces) were vying for dominance in native-rich South America, pitting tribes against one another and scamming them all for plundered natural resources. The story trails after a pallid Frenchman (Arduíno Colasanti) who after being mistaken for a Belgian (the indignity!) is captured by a cannibal tribe and set up for an honorary eight-month life of happy citizenry in their ranks (complete with wife). After his allotted time is up, he will be ritualistically slaughtered and eaten unless he can figure a way out beforehand. The filmmaker is less interested in dramatics or empathy than in the avalanche of ironies that attend the situation, sprinkling in title-card commentary from European witnesses from the time, and even having the white man’s lovely, all-nude whip of a wife (the astonishing Ana Maria Magalhães, who went on to be a major, award-winning force in Brazilian cinema, both in front of and behind the camera) seduce him at one point with a long, sexy monologue about exactly how he’ll be killed and eaten. Colonialism is the target, and it’s such a monstrous sitting duck that the film barely has to lift a finger to make a mockery of all things old-school European. Taken just on a political level, “How Tasty” is one of sharpest satires of colonial history ever made, especially since it’s sourced out from the exploited culture’s sensibility. The New Yorker disc comes with plenty of sociopolitical exegesis a lengthy essay by Portugese historian and Indiana University prof Darlene Sadlier, intro by Columbia prof/Lincoln Center programmer Richard Peña, and an interview with contemporary tribal spokesman Ailton Krenak just in case you think the film itself looks cut-and-dried.
“Comedy of Power” (Koch Lorber) and “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” (New Yorker) will be available on DVD on May 8th.