With this year’s Elle and Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert is challenging female stereotypes. But the truth is she has been honing her ferocious talent for over forty years. In Claude Chabrol’s 2006 L’ivresse du pouvoir (A Comedy of Power), Isabelle Huppert played Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a fierce, dedicated French investigating magistrate who embarks on uncovering a vast web of corruption at the highest levels. As in many of her films, Huppert does not have a match in this one either. Fuelled by nicotine, a killer instinct when it comes to corrupted officials and a relentless desire to serve justice, Charmant-Killman is set to get every one of the buffoonish conspirators she interviews one by one, greeting every ridiculous statement they make with a sarcastic smile.
Jeanne is a singular character. I found it interesting to see the direction the film eventually took, by choosing to focus on character development rather than sticking to relate a story of a political scandal based on real events. When promoting the film, costume designer Mic Cheminal said she saw Jeanne “as a ghost, hence her ethereal silhouette. Very stylish, chiseled. That’s why she wears dark colours.” Sharp suits in sober shades, muted-toned blouses, fit for the position she has. She has an edgy grace. One of the few bright colours she wears is her blue trench, thus “hinting that she may have a life” outside her work. It can also hint to a warmer side of Jeanne that only the candid talks with her nephew, Fèlix (Thomas Chabrol), seem to bring to light.
The only other colours Huppert wears are in her accessories: pink-rimmed glasses, red gloves, red handbag. About her glasses, Isabelle said that they revealed a sign of self-affirmation and a touch of femininity. It’s easy to imagine a well-dressed judge, but, in case of a woman, it can be an indication of her power and beliefs. And then, a certain elegance lends Jeanne confidence when confronting all those men.
But it was the red gloves that got most of my attention in the wardrobe department. They are seen so often that you inevitably start thinking about their symbolism. The camera does not necessarily look for them, but it always lingers on this pair of red leather gloves. They are Balenciaga, as are, in fact, all of Isabelle’s clothes in the film, designed by none other than Nicolas Ghesquière. The French designer loves movies and Claude Chabrol is one of his favourite filmmakers. Ghesquière’s fashion inspiration is often rooted in the film world and he even used as source of inspiration for one of his Balenciaga collections “a certain French bourgeoise elegance of the 1970s, impersonated by Stéphane Audran in Chabrol’s movies”, as he was saying in an interview for Libération a few good years before his collaboration on L’ivresse du pouvoir.
Isabelle Huppert is an actress who, in her own words (in an interview for The Criterion Collection), first thinks about the director, then about the script and then about the role when choosing a film. But the directors she’s worked with put the same kind of trust in her. In A Comedy of Power, for example, she seems to have worked closely with Chabrol on the costumes, too, and even advanced the idea to call the film “Red Gloves” to suggest that from the very moment one exercises a power over human beings, one’s hands redden. “Don’t they call my job the most powerful one in the state?”, she asks at some point. And the deeper she digs and the more she uncovers, the more powerful she becomes.
The irony is that she has as much power as they let her have – a comedy of power, because the film is just as much about Charmant-Killman’s apparent invulnerability as it is about corporate fat-cats who believe they are above the law and whom she is after. Chabrol’s films indeed draw a very fine line between sarcasm and darkness.
Note: This article has also appeared on The Big Picture Magazine
photos: film stills | Alicéléo / France 2 Cinéma / A.J.O.Z. Films / Integral Film