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'Power' has wisdom, but lacks punch

Isabelle Huppert and Robin Renucci play husband and wife in Claude Chabrol's new film. (Koch Lorber Films)

I'd like a word with all you CEO s and chairmen of the board. If you're abusing corporate privileges -- you know, skimming from the company till to have $50,000 swimming pools installed, get your other woman's nail s done, keep her in Hermès -- you should pray Judge Jeanne Charmant-Killman (nice name) doesn't come after you.

Jeanne is the imperious long arm of the law Isabelle Huppert plays in "The Comedy of Power," the latest featherweight entertainment from 76-year-old Claude Chabrol , who, having nothing left to prove as an artist, is now just doing whatever he wants. At the moment, he wants to mock corporate arrogance. (Every deal comes with a side of corruption.)

In the film, which has its roots in an actual French scandal, Jeanne is investigating Michel Humeau (François Berléand ) for "abuse of trust," among other white-collar infractions. He's been tossed in jail, his lawyer is not entirely reliable, and he's up against Jeanne, who is cool and thorough. She has obtained a list of every company credit-card expense as well as even worse incriminations. Understandably, his business partners are nervous -- they're next.

Of course, because Jeanne is so formidable at work, things at her posh home must be a mess. Her husband, Philippe (Robin Renucci ), is incurably envious of her sterling reputation and vaguely jealous of her close relationship with Félix (Chabrol's son Thomas ), his somewhat younger nephew who's just moved in.

I wish I could report that the director, who wrote the film with Odile Barski , a longtime collaborator, has some new ideas about this ancient strategy of non-feminist social commentary, but alas: cliché, cliché, cliché. Activity on the home front is certainly a pleasure to watch. Yet it's in the relationship between Jeanne and the men she's examining that "Comedy of Power" is most interesting.

Chabrol clearly relishes casting aspersions on the ludicrous self-entitlements enjoyed by the lions of French business, whoever they are. According to him, though, they're certain to be graying, white, tanned, chomping villainously on stogies, swilling a snifter of cognac, and in possession of several glossies of themselves gleefully asnuggle with a mistress . (Who takes these pictures?) In my favorite development, the men sit around and discuss how best to keep Jeanne off their cases (they're in collusion with one of her bosses), and someone suggests making her work with another woman. They reason the women will be too busy fighting each other to fight crime . Comedy of power, indeed!

In any case, she and her new partner (Marilyne Canto ) get along pretty well, collaborating together to bring these guys down. Jeanne is prone to Joe Friday-isms such as, "It's not the image of justice I care about. It's justice." Accordingly, when something a little juicy happens (or is about to) , the score by Matthieu Chabrol (another of the director's kids) evokes the theme from "Dragnet ." But this woman is not completely immune to keeping up certain appearances. Jeanne will survive your tampering with the brakes of her car (how shameless is this movie?), and she won't sip a drop of your expensive bribery wine. But give her a fancy new office in an attempt to distract her and she'll certainly get a new haircut to match.

This movie can't commit to a genre, let alone a logical sequence or complete idea. But there is a wisdom in its blasé assessments and frivolous air: What's the point; where's the wine? The film also contains the single greatest reason for refusing a bonus ever, and Huppert is more recognizably human than she's been in years. But her casting here, in her umpteenth Chabrol picture, has a functional allure. Jeanne and her venal corporate prey aren't all that different from each other. They both seem absolutely untouchable.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, got to